So what is your first thought as Chairman if one of your Board colleagues names you as a contributing cause of his intended suicide? And how do you feel as line manager at a big international bank if one of the interns under your charge collapses and dies at just 25 due, by all accounts, to work pressures you have either imposed or at least condoned. And as HR Manager, how do you cope when a dismissal decision which you did not make but did implement leads the ex-employee to take his own life?
Perhaps in this litigious world your first thought is to deny responsibility, as did Deutsche Bank Group Chairman Josef Ackerman in an outstandingly graceless resignation letter following the suicide of Zurich Insurance CFO Pierre Wauthier, or to quickly note the intern’s underlying medical complaint, as did the Bank of America. But after the initial shock, what else are you to do? To accept calmly and rationally that you are as an individual responsible for (as opposed to merely an instrument in) someone losing his own life, especially by his own hand, can be almost unbearable. Is it true that your colleagues are looking at you and that conversation stops when you come into the room, or are you just imagining it? Could you have done something different? Should you have seen the signs? What are the signs?
In nearly thirty years in practice I have advised on three dismissals of employees who subsequently killed themselves, one with a shotgun while on the phone to his former line manager. Even at one step removed, they were all shocking events and they left the HR and line managers involved a little altered forever. It was not my fault, I was just doing my job, etc., and now that the initial emotional jolt has receded slightly, it perhaps becomes possible to say the same for Herr Ackerman and the line manager at Bank of America. As Chairman of the Bank, it was Ackerman’s right, in fact his contractual obligation, to get the best results he could out of his Board colleagues. No one would have thanked the BoA line manager either for making the interns go home at 6pm because they were looking a bit tired. HR cannot decline to dismiss someone just because they fear it may be taken very badly.
Both examples raise some difficult questions for the enquiries which Deutsche Bank and BoA have undertaken to carry out – how do you investigate degrees of pressure at such a level of seniority and remuneration, whether you already have it, like Wauthier, or so desperately want it, like the intern? How do you determine what is “undue” stress in what is by definition an incredibly stressful job – in Wauthier’s case, overseeing the finances of a company with annual revenues exceeding $70billion – or where the interns drive themselves beyond the point of reason so as to appear the most committed, the most ambitious, the alpha dog among the pack?
Despite some of the online comments to the contrary, bankers are humans too. They do not forfeit that status because they earn or hope to earn a stratospheric financial return. No doubt the investigations will conclude that senior management is sometimes threatening and aggressive, that workloads are huge and that the weight of responsibility and price of professional failure are proportionate to the rewards of success. Once you have those findings, however, the question will be what can be done about them? Short of a global change in the law or competitive attitudes (no chance in either case, I suspect), this is very hard to discern.
And as for the blameless HR Manager, perhaps the last person to speak to the dismissed employee, it is impossible to see that anything could be done in terms of process or law to prevent such tragedies. We can rarely know what domestic, financial or health pressures may lurk just beneath the surface and still less forecast when they will combine with workload or dismissal to fatal effect.