Is that academically gifted, high-performing, twentysomething graduate trainee on your team an example of intelligence and ambition incarnate? Or is he simply an egomaniac with delusions about his own abilities? If you work in an investment bank or professional services firm, the latter is a distinct possibility. Unintentionally, they may simply be hiring narcissists.
A recent PhD thesis from Jeff Simpson, a student at Massey University in New Zealand found that organisations that seek to attract graduates using elitist graduate marketing messages are particularly likely to attract egomaniacs. Simpson looked at 75 recent recruits to the graduate programme of a professional services firm. Eleven were found to be narcissists.
Several things make investment banks particularly vulnerable to applications from self-lovers. Banks' graduate recruiters say that at least 70% of their graduate applications are now from men - and men are more prone to egomania (in Simpson's study, 64% of the narcissistic trainees were male). Banks are also known as elitist status-heavy places which pay well. "Organisations that use messages emphasizing status and money will attract more narcissistic applicants," confirmed Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and co-author of book, The Narcissism Epidemic. And banks are big on competency interviews for their graduate recruits. By providing an opportunity for individuals to talk confidently about their successes in the past, competency interviews just encourage narcissists, said Simpson: "The competency-based interview is the ideal opportunity for narcissists to shine."
Some bank recruiters say egomania is rife among the graduates they hire. "The graduates we hire have always been top of their class. They're massively entitled and can be very difficult to work with," said a chief operating officer at one European investment bank in London, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We struggle with our graduate hires," admitted the head of recruitment at one North American Bank, also speaking on an unnamed basis. "It's all about what the bank can do for them - we hire students who have been told how wonderful they are for years by their parents and who have achieved excellent grades at university. They really do believe that they are special people."
Definitions of narcissism vary. Simpson said narcissists are very bad at taking criticism: they can talk about their positive traits with ease, but will go into denial when asked about negative aspects of their personality. Narcissists are also aggressive, exploitative, cynical and mistrustful. They are not very empathetic. And narcissists are not very keen on associating with other people (unless those people are in positions of conspicuous power).
The chief of staff at one US investment bank in the City told us she recently interviewed a text-book narcissist for a graduate role. "I began to challenge his response to a question and he actually held his hand up in my face and commanded, 'No!"," she said. "And when we asked him a brain teaser, he suggested we move on to a more 'normal' interview style."
That candidate didn't get an offer. But many do get hired by banks. Polly Courtney, a former Merrill Lynch trainee-turned-novelist, said that during her time at Merrill, it was often the back office trainees who were worst. "There was one guy who strutted around as though he were CEO, even though he was only 22," she said. "He always wore the boldest shirts and spent a lot of time in the gym admiring his physique. He now works in a front office role for another firm."
The self-regard of graduate recruits can be grating for senior bankers who have had humility drummed into them by repetitive rounds of redundancy. "Our graduates often annoy the senior people," said the senior recruiter. "They want to be able to email the CEO with their opinions and we have to manage their expectations and tell them that's not such a good idea. There's no sense of deference."
Egomania is a demographic issue. Simpson points to research showing that narcissism is highest in 15-year-olds. Intense self-regard declines consistently until people are in their mid-50s, and then begins to rise again. Twenge said that Generation Y (people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) self-describe as far more narcissistic than previous generations. "They are also more likely to say they think they are above average in traits such as leadership ability, drive to achieve, and academic ability," she said.
Not everyone is convinced that banks are drowning under a tide of graduate egomaniacs, however. Nadia Osgood, a freelance graduate recruitment consultant who works with investment banks, said young people applying to banks have the right to be pleased with themselves. "These people have pushed themselves and risen to the top of a very large pool. They're not narcissistic, they're just very successful," she insisted. "There's actually quite a lot of humility among graduates now."