13 November 2018

The misery (or not) of being a junior in a consulting firm

If you’re thinking of leaving banking to become a consultant, then beware. Consultants don’t necessarily have easier lives than bankers. In the worst case scenario, they work harder and earn less.

New research from the Amsterdam School of Business and Economics, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, highlights the hard time that some junior consultants have. The researchers asked 12 consultant managers and their respective juniors about their working lives. They found that managers were putting high levels of pressure on juniors and that juniors were burning out under high levels of stress as a result.

The comments from the consulting juniors and the managers are illuminating. They are also strangely reminiscent of complaints from juniors in banking.

Consulting hours are long and the workload is heavy 

If you thought you’d be working shorter hours in a consulting firm than in a bank, then think again. “Consulting is working from deadline to deadline,” one junior told the researchers. “And if a deadline requires a lot, then working 80 hours [a week] occurs easily.” Another described consulting work as, “like a pressure cooker…It is just hard work. You have deadlines.”

There’s little support for junior consultants, who feel unable to ask their bosses for help

Banks have attempted to empower juniors (successfully or not), so that they can push-back when asked to complete work late at night or over weekends. In consulting firms, however, the juniors said they felt awkward going to their bosses with problems. “I know myself. I sure have my issues here. But I would never go with those to my boss. . . . opening up could be seen as a loss of face,” said one.

A manager told the researchers that juniors who become overwhelmed by work are often ashamed by it and that few are willing to talk managers about their problems. Because of this, he said “it does not go well” when the issues are eventually discovered.

Consulting firms are all about keeping clients happy, irrespective of anything else 

If you work in an investment bank where clients rule and you expect life in a consulting firm to be different, then bad luck.

“The key rule is: as long as the client is happy,” said one consulting junior. “And that can be a really dangerous criteria, in which you can easily go too far.”

If juniors don’t keep clients and bosses happy, their days are numbered. “Consulting is a hard environment. As a junior you have to satisfy your project managers,” said one manager. “Failing to satisfy your manager can only happen one or two times. Then they look for someone else.”

Consultants are working themselves into a state of sickness and exhaustion 

Remember the report from Alexandra Michel, the ex-Goldman Sachs associate-turned assistant professor of management and organisation at the University of California? – Michel found that junior bankers go through a cycle of physical abuse until they either dropout or take control.  It seems consultants are engaged in something similar.

“What I do see, is the age at which people come down with long-term illness is rapidly declining. I have an increasing number of people under 30 coming to me with such symptoms,” said one manager. A junior consultant said: “If you struggle with boundaries, and want to do everything perfectly, working as a consultant is not sustainable. And that’s what happened to me. I made myself sick.”

Consultants are quitting because they can’t take it any more 

Just as people leave banking because they can’t stick the work and the lifestyle, so they quit consulting jobs too.

“In the moment you are like ‘Okay, we have to get through this’. But you know it’s not sustainable. You can’t let juniors work that many hours for several weeks on projects. You know that they will leave after a year or so. It’s not sustainable,” says one consulting manager. “If people are really unhappy with their projects, they will ask if this is the right job for them, and then they leave,” says a junior.

But it’s not all bad in consulting….

Working in consulting is not all bad though. The researchers also discovered consulting juniors and managers who stuck up for their profession. One said hours were more like 55 a week than 80 (“Look, I work from 8 A.M. till 7 P.M”). Another junior consultant said people who work long hours do so because they choose to: “There are people here that can’t say no; they can’t stop. But they really like that and do great work because of that. They are actively seeking such pressure.”

As in banking, it seems consulting juniors are being urged to curtail workaholic tendencies. “I work around 60 hours [a week] now,” said one junior. “They monitor that you do not work too much. . . . You have conversations like ‘you leave the project too late every time’. …your manager talks to you individually.” Another said he’d been sent on a course to help manage work-life balance: “We got taught how to say ‘no’ to managers.”

Some consulting firms also go out of the way to ensure their juniors feel valued. “‘If we require our employees to work on the weekends, we compensate for that,” said one manager. “We send a gift coupon to the family, especially if it happens more often, or we send flowers. And if we require our employees to work hard for an extended period, we send them on a weekend trip with their family.”

Most notably, though, it seemed that junior consultants valued what they did and felt socially superior to bankers. “I really like consulting,” said one manager. “What I like is to help others and explain things. The way I see consulting, is that it helps others. So no way am I ashamed of that.” Another manager said bankers had taken over from consultants as social pariahs: “I think the reputation problem for consultants has become less over the years. Bankers have a bigger problem… why should the latter earn so much?”

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