Braced to face the banking bullies: exclusive interview

Dodd: When mental toll is tolerated, companies become bystanders to harm: they are getting away with murder
"When banks are affecting the mental health of talented staff, they need to be held accountable," says Ian Dodd, former global head of recruiting for Goldman Sachs

By failing to prioritise staff wellbeing, companies are literally getting away with murder, says the former global head of recruiting for Goldman Sachs, Ian Dodd, who is preparing to sue the investment bank.

In 2021, 13 analysts in their first year of working for the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs banded together to call out the business’s “inhumane” working conditions, which included 100-hour weeks.

Despite the rancour that followed, the company’s CEO, David Solomon – who was trolled a year later for having enough spare time to DJ at the Lollapalooza music festival – succeeded in toughing the crisis out.

Batting away criticisms of the firm’s excessive working hours by charmingly saying: “It’s great this group of people went to their management,” (subtext: “Problem, what problem?!”), Solomon was confident enough to turn defence into offence, demanding a full, five-day return to the office policy in 2022. For his efforts, earlier this year he pocketed a 24% pay rise to $31 million (£25 million).

Read more: How to spot a toxic leader

Solomon was described by colleagues as someone who “talks in a yelling voice” and “dehumanises you when he talks to you”.

After heading up a firm accused of encouraging dangerously long hours, Solomon was able to get back, it seems, to his bellicose self.

But one man is refusing to let the issue die. This time, the thorn in Goldman’s side is none other than one of its own former HR professionals.

Ian Dodd, who was Goldman Sachs’ global head of recruiting, was first hired by the bank in 2018. “After going through 30 interviews, and hearing about how committed the bank was to its talent, Goldman promised me the opportunity to do the best work of my career,” recalls Dodd, who previously worked as vice president of talent acquisition for Expedia Group, and as a director of global people and organisation programmes for Skype. On the face of it, this was the role of a lifetime.

“I was tasked with overseeing Goldman’s global talent pipeline,” Dodd explains. “But very quickly, I could see things were very different there.”

He adds: “There was a clear, dysfunctional and toxic culture. The HR team I inherited was exhausted, working harder and harder to meet ever-more complex demands. I was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. I was burned out.”

In 2022, Dodd – who now describes himself as an activist for workplace reform – filed a personal injury claim against the bank for psychological harm. His claim, for more than £1 million, cited “unreasonable and excessive hours” as well as a failure of senior leadership partners to provide him with adequate support. It was a situation that led Dodd towards wanting to take his own life, he says.

A full trial is expected at the start of 2025. But Dodd doesn’t just seek personal vindication.

More importantly, he wants an acknowledgement from Goldman that it needs to change, and that its “culture of bullying”, which he says has given rise to colleagues sobbing in meetings, must end.

“The way the bank operates is unreasonable and wrong,” he says in a defiant tone. “And guess what? As soon as I spoke out, other people, as well as people in different banks, also began to come out of the shadows and say that the same thing was happening to them. That’s when I realised that this had really gone deep.”

In its initial High Court defence document, Goldman denied the “culture of divisiveness” that Dodd expresses.

The company’s representative also denies a culture of bullying, arguing that any pressure Dodd felt to be ‘always on’ was self-generated.

“We all have periods of overload,” Dodd tells me, “but at least most people can pause.” He adds: “I was an experienced HR professional; not fresh out of university.

"What I found myself experiencing was harmful. I needed reasonable support. But this was not extended to me.”

According to Dodd, the narrative that Goldman is using in its defence – the suggestion that stressed-out employees can’t cope because of their own faults rather than faults of the employer – is corrosive to having a proper debate about mental health in the workplace. “We need to call out the fact that there are companies out there doing harm to people,” he says.

“Banking has shockingly high rates of suicide, and research confirms that for every actual suicide there are 20 attempts.”

In 2015, 22-year-old Goldman analyst Sarvshreshth Gupta took his own life, after reporting that he worked 100-hour weeks and did not sleep for days on end. For Dodd, enough is enough. “I’ve decided to stand up and be counted,” he says.

Read more: How employers can help prevent suicide

“Lots of organisations will say they are offering support, like EAPs or mental health first aiders. But they’re not actually providing a solution.

“Consistently, it’s unsustainable hours that create workplace harm. World Mental Health Day events, balloons… they’re all a form of distraction. Lack of agency among employees to be able to control their workload is the real problem. Employers are not fixing the important stuff.”

Laudable though Dodd’s aims are, could he be fighting an uphill battle? It feels like mental health, after having successfully ascended to the top of HR’s priority list, is now suffering a bad rep.

In March, the UK’s work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, bewailed what he sees as “normal anxieties of life” being medicalised as mental health conditions.

Seemingly in support of that view, prime minister Rishi Sunak said in April that, just because people are anxious or depressed, it “doesn’t mean we should assume [they] can’t engage in the world of work”. Poor mental health is being bashed as an inconvenient cause célèbre.

“The fact that there are 900,000 people off work due to stress and anxiety tells me there is a still a big difference between good and bad work,” rebuffs Dodd. “People are right now paying the price for being in a bad work environment,” he says.

So what needs to happen? Dodd argues that board members are required to be accountable for “the things that break people”, and to then make plans that address those things. As part of what he calls a proper health reform, he is specifically calling on organisations, and banks in particular, to disclose statistics around the use of workplace mental health services.

“When banks are affecting the mental health of talented staff, they need to be held accountable for any potential harm,” he says. “Banks must move away from offering evasive and inadequate services. They need to transition towards a new era of accountability.

“They need to publish honest disclosures about the epidemiology of mental health conditions among their staff, the effectiveness of their support, and, most importantly, the performance of strategic leadership and cultural programmes in addressing their current lag.” He adds:

“Mental health deserves to be, and should be, a top priority for these banks. Their names, logos and their heritage should no longer give them protection from scrutiny.”

To prevent banks from creating their own yardsticks for mental health, which would render data difficult to compare, Dodd wants a government-imposed reporting framework, and mandated reporting. “Both have to be the answer,” he says. “Currently, companies don’t want this data out there because if it was, it would be seen as a material risk to their business.”

It’s a noble ambition. “Until there are proper metrics out there, mental health will always be under-reported,” he suggests.

“Some staff are too frightened to use employer-provided mental health services for fear it will come back to them.” He adds: “We’ve got to remember, many financial services employers currently use aggressive and brutal performance management systems where the lowest 5% of performers are removed. People don’t want to be seen as part of a cadre that can’t ‘cope’, so they find themselves letting their managers drive them as hard as they can.”

By putting his head above the parapet, Dodd knows that the run-up to the court case will not be pleasant. “As court filings are revealed, the trolls will come out,” he says.

“I’ve already had online abuse. People claim I couldn’t hack it, or that I’m bitter, or that I’m just in it for the money.

“But each time I’m in the news, I also hear from many more people who say they were in the same situation I was. Good work heals people, and bad work harms people. Physical and mental health should be treated the same. This is the end-result I want to pursue.”

With his highly anticipated court case likely to stir up many negative arguments about mental health, Dodd is clearly bracing himself for the challenge.

“When you look at banks and law firms, you continue to see a culture of high pressure and high demands,” he observes. “It’s a chest-beating, alpha-male culture which has fear and humiliation baked into it.

Read more: What lessons leaders and HR can learn observing a toxic work environment

“What we need instead is authentic and disclosed discussions about staff wellbeing.

To be held accountable, leaders need to disclose the effectiveness and usage of their offered mental health support services. Only then will organisations, especially banks, take mental health seriously, and see staff as emotionally capable humans, not capital machines held at the whim of KPIs.”

What does Dodd realistically think his chances are? “I don’t know how this case is going to go,” he admits.

“The law tends to want to suppress people like me. I don’t assume anything. But I literally know bodies are being burned.”

He adds: “In any environment where mental toll is tolerated, companies become bystanders to harm, and are literally getting away with murder. It’s only when we start to count the human cost of all this, that change will happen. There has to be a turning point when leaders can’t get away with this stuff, and a ground-up movement follows.”


This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine.

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