“The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club
I heard someone shouting and then a shuffling noise on the next aisle over, where our traders sat. The other salespeople and I half-sat up in our seats to see what was happening. I peeked over my three screens just in time to see the first punch thrown. The other trader lunged and they both fell to the floor shouting and cursing. Others stepped in to pull the traders apart. A managing director admonished the two and sent one off the floor to cool down. The other returned to his desk and his job as though nothing had happened. Everyone else laughed a bit and returned to work. No further discussion. Business as usual.
It was my third day on the job and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. A newly-minted MBA, I had been hired into the associate program at one of the world’s largest investment banks. I had heard about the aggressive nature of bankers, especially traders, but I had not considered that there would be actual physical violence at work. I turned to the guy sitting next to me, who was one step up on the totem pole with 2 years of experience. “Is this normal?” I asked. “Well, it doesn’t happen often,” he replied, “but the traders can be pretty hot-headed. Usually they just throw telephones at each other.” “Telephones?” “Well, just the handsets. They aren’t very heavy.” He turned back to his screens and calmly returned to making notes of the trades to recommend to his clients.
And he was right – I did frequently see the senior traders throw telephone handsets at the junior traders. Was this violence unique to the men on the trading floor? There was a woman sitting on a different team near mine. She wasn’t a managing director yet, but one step below that – still very senior and there were few senior women on the trading floor. As a newbie, sometimes I would sit with her to listen to her client calls and learn techniques and products. She was sharp and no-nonsense, and didn’t take shit from the traders (including one who routinely ridiculed me for the “shitty little trades” I brought them from my “shitty little clients” – not something I could help as an associate just starting out). When a member of my associate class heard who I was sitting with, his eyes widened. “Stay on her good side! I once saw her put her hands around a trader’s throat when he gave her a bad price.” Was it true? I didn’t dare ask her – I was already intimidated by her before hearing that story.
This aggression existed across genders and at all levels of the organization. A secretary once physically threatened me with violence after she was reprimanded by the MD for not telling me that my clients had arrived and were waiting in a meeting room. Having never been in a fight or even an argument heated enough to indicate the possibility of being physical, I was horrified and literally shaking. The secretary was forced to apologize to me, not because her behavior was incorrect, but “because secretaries shouldn’t speak to executives that way.” The unspoken point was that if the situation were reversed, it would have been acceptable for me to speak to the secretary however I pleased.
My early impression was that the trading floor seemed like a cross between a casino and a locker room. Neither of which I’d ever spent much time in. I wondered what that meant for my career.
After a decade of work in banking, that initial observation still holds true. And it’s something I rarely heard discussed – it was literally laughed off as boys being boys (or bitches being bitches). The aggressive atmosphere wasn’t just tolerated – it was encouraged. The more senior a person became, the higher the tolerance everyone else had for their antics. Fortunately, the more senior I became, the less likely I was to encounter it. When I moved to another bank mid-career, I had the confidence and seniority to ward off both the sexual harassment and threats of physical violence.
It still baffles my mind that no one talks about this. Please share your own Fight Club experiences in the comments!