July 14, 2024

DealBook: At Goldman, Pressure on Staff to Keep a Low Profile


When Matt Levine, a vice president at Goldman Sachs, announced in May that he was leaving his job to become a full-time writer for Dealbreaker, a satirical blog that covers the finance industry, a few colleagues gave him a wary send-off.

“Pretty much everyone thought it was awesome, though some of them are sort of nervous about talking to me now,” he said.

Katie Baker got a similar reaction when she announced that she was planning to leave Goldman’s private wealth management division, where she worked as a vice president, to write for Grantland, a new ESPN sports site. While colleagues in her group were excited, Ms. Baker, 28, had to meet with Goldman executives, who quickly rejected her plans to continue working at the firm for her final two weeks, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Restless Wall Street workers often dream about quitting their jobs, breaking the so-called golden handcuffs of high-paying finance careers to chase their passions. But several recent Goldman Sachs employees with interests in the media, arts and other visible industries have found themselves in uncomfortable positions with the firm. At Goldman and other banks whose reputations were damaged in the financial crisis, a public persona can be a liability.

In Ms. Baker’s case, she was told that writing about her time at Goldman would represent a breach of her confidentiality agreement, which extended indefinitely. The firm informed Mr. Levine, 33, that he would have to take a paid 60-day leave before he could start at Dealbreaker, a common industry waiting period referred to as a “garden leave.”

“I don’t think it’s all that surprising, given everything that’s gone on with Goldman Sachs and the press,” said Bess Levin, the Dealbreaker editor who hired Mr. Levine.

A Goldman spokesman declined to comment. Ms. Baker and Mr. Levine declined to talk about the contractual terms of their departure, citing their confidentiality agreements.

Investment banks have always prized discretion among employees. But at Goldman — an investment bank so private that many of its employees refer to it simply as “the firm” — there is added pressure to keep a low profile.

Allen Mask came to Goldman’s retail analyst program as a 22-year-old with a side career. An amateur rapper during his time at the University of North Carolina, Mr. Mask had recorded several albums and hoped to further his music career in New York.

“At first, it was a cool thing, and everyone at the firm was like, ‘We’re here to support you,’ ” said Mr. Mask, now 23. “They knew that was part of my life.”

But then a financial blogger discovered his Goldman connection and posted one of his performance videos online, crowning him the “hip-hop investment banker.” As more blogs and media outlets picked up his story, Goldman’s media gatekeepers clamped down. They declined interview and television requests on his behalf and eventually gave him strict orders: no more performing, no more recording and no speaking to the media.

Mr. Mask, faced with a choice between his music and his finance career, decided to quit.

“I didn’t do anything to deserve the negative treatment and the harassment I got,” said Mr. Mask, who now works for Google and lives in Silicon Valley. “It’s not like I changed the share price.”

Tom Comerford, an employee in Goldman’s graphics department, was also a victim of side-career success. In his spare time, he moonlighted for the Wall Street Experience, giving guided tours of New York’s financial district. When a British newspaper wrote an article about Mr. Comerford, he was called into meetings with the firm’s legal and compliance officers. He left the firm of his own accord shortly thereafter.

“I told them I could understand their anger,” said Mr. Comerford, who still gives Wall Street tours.

“But they said, ‘No, you don’t understand. Even if you want to be on the board of your condo, you have to get it passed through us,’ ” he added. “They’re very covetous over their name.”

Goldman has regulatory reasons to be wary. A federal rule requires employees at financial institutions to disclose outside sources of income. Ms. Baker, the wealth manager, wrote paid freelance articles for several blogs while on the job at Goldman without informing the firm, a clear violation of the regulation.

But reputation is just as important on Wall Street.

“People expect their bankers to behave like bankers,” said one former trader at JPMorgan Chase, who left the firm to pursue a film career. The trader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationships at the bank, added, “You’re not supposed to be known for anything else or stand out for anything besides your work.”

Image concerns in the corporate world are hardly unique to Goldman, and not everyone gets the third degree. Frank Leung, who worked at Goldman’s London office, left in 2009 to open a Mexican restaurant with a friend from college. Mr. Leung said that he was on good terms with his former colleagues, some of whom he continued to serve as customers at the restaurant.

“Maybe they’re more lenient in the United Kingdom,” he said.

Regardless of the tenor of their departures, recent Goldman dropouts said they were happier now. Mr. Levine and Mr. Mask emphasized that they still had good relationships with Goldman, and Ms. Baker said that her only regret was quitting before a Shake Shack diner went up next to the firm’s Manhattan headquarters. (“Goldman always wins,” she joked.)

For Mr. Levine, taking a big pay cut to work at Dealbreaker — a blog that covers, and often lampoons, his old employer — could be seen as a rogue move. But the blog’s editor, Ms. Levin, said she did not expect Mr. Levine to reveal any trade secrets, although she was excited about having a Wall Street insider on staff.

“Of course Goldman expects me not to write about anything that I saw or did at the firm,” Mr. Levine said. “But I was a corporate equity derivatives marketer and believe me, no one wants to read about that.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6666f1b77d5c80b68393f7b001a94ae0

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