What killed Moritz Erhardt?

Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
Davis Turner/Getty Images

(MoneyWatch) Moritz Erhardt was 21 when he was found dead after working for three straight days as an intern for Bank of America in London. For now, what caused his death is unknown. But some reports have, fairly or not, implicated the intense work culture at the financial giant, which required exceedingly long hours.

B of A isn't unique in this respect -- a grinding schedule is common in the the City of London, London's financial district. It may turn out that this had nothing to do with Erhardt's death, but that the company's work culture is widely assumed to be responsible tells you what you need to know about working in The City.

Having talked to many corporate interns at summer programs like the one Erhardt was in at B of A, several things are clear:

1. The interns believe they are in a competition for a few coveted spots.

2. They also believe that hours are correlated with productivity.

3. Their bosses believe that hours are correlated with loyalty and commitment.

4. Everyone thinks the system efficiently rewards the strong and weeds out the weak.

Let's examine each of those assumptions.

Competition. Not all the interns will get jobs. Some might rationally decide that this kind of working environment is not for them. Internships ought to be a two-way experiment in which both the firm and the individual assess one another. Where this isn't the case -- where companies abuse their dominant position in a tight job market -- the employers are at fault. They should know how to run an intelligent, adult internship program. If anything, they should strive to moderate the sense of hope, panic and fear that these programs inspire.

Hours. Ever since the first productivity studies were conducted a hundred years ago, we have known that the number of hours people work do not correlate with productivity. After about 40 hours a week, human beings get tired and make mistakes. Extra hours are used to clear up messes, not produce great new work. If, as reported, Erhardt pulled several all-nighters in a row, this might not have killed him, but it would certainly have made him intellectually useless. Missing just one night's sleep is equivalent to being over the alcohol limit, yet corporate culture tends to treat over-workers as if they were heroes, not drunks.

Loyalty and commitment. Firms that measure engagement by hours are living in the stone age. If you want a truly outstanding employee, you need that person to have time and energy to think, time off to absorb new information and have ideas. Even professional athletes now fully recognize that high performance isn't about doing one thing remorselessly, but mixing it up. It's about time corporations brought the same level of finesse to their people that the best educated coaches bring to theirs.

Strength versus weakness. Competition doesn't reward the strong and weed out the week. It rewards the obedient, the compliant and the unimaginative. It imposes tunnel vision and an addiction to rewards. If you seriously want a company full of thinking, sentient, smart people who have a long future ahead of them, then a competitive culture isn't what you want. Nor are headlines like these.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.