‘They made me drink a pint of urine’: Grad scheme stories from hell
How desperate grads are earning their stripes
“In my first week, I went to a bar with my new managers to watch an England match. We got smashed — they offered me a tenner each if I drank a pint of their piss, adding up to 60 quid.
“They came back from the urinal with it wrapped in toilet paper. I drank it. It tasted awful and they never gave me my cash.”
These were the first few days of Paul’s trainee scheme at a top London advertising agency. Less than a month after graduating from Bristol, he entered a world of boozed-up meetings and roaring bosses getting the rounds in.
He was just one of the thousands of eager graduates competing for a coveted place at London’s hotshot firms: the young guns of advertising, hedge funds, recruitment, trade and asset management, willing to throw themselves into a sleepless world of non-stop work for a massive salary. And they’ll do anything to fit in with their new seniors, even if it means bolting a hot pint of their piss.
And it’s not just banking where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to life: the City is full of talented graduates from the best unis in Britain who have raced against each other through rigorous interviews, aptitude tests and assessment days to reach their desks. They might have been confident under pressure during their interviews but now they’re in through the door, they won’t think twice about getting hammered at lunch because their boss says so, or work Stakhanovite hours on pointless tasks, anxiously waiting for their two favourite words: well done.
Take Lizzie, who graduated two years ago from Cambridge and now works at a major London asset management firm. Keen to prove herself as hot talent against her peers, she threw herself into her new job from the start.
“On my first day, I was there until 3am. This was the grad scheme that would lead to the job and they informed me I would work most weekends and do 16 to 20 hour days.
“I drank five cans of Red Bull a day to keep going and have one for breakfast every morning.
“I carried on like that for the first two weeks. On the grad scheme, I worked two months straight and had one day off.”
For Lizzie, the magic roundabout was standard practice: a dizzying ride home from the office after work to wash and put on new clothes only to come straight back in.
“Often I would go home at dawn in a taxi, have an hour’s nap, a shower, put on new clothes and go back in. The entire office was running on coffee and Red Bull.”
Two years ago, when 21-year-old intern Moritz Erhardt died during a stint at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, an inquest heard he worked for three days without sleep before suffering an epileptic fit. A rumour followed about seniors at rival banks pinning the tragic news story onto notice boards, intended for interns’ eyes, with the words: “you’re not working hard enough”.
Lizzie says that didn’t happen at her office and is keen to brush off months of intense work and a lack of social life as perfectly normal, even though she had no time for friends, family or exercise.
“Genuinely everyone was very nice. They did forewarn us this was all going to happen at the start, that we would have to work a load of nights a week. You can average four or five hours of sleep each night for a week, so you do adjust to it as well.
“You have no time for exercise though, which can take a while to get used to. You have no time to see your friends as well. In the cab home from work, I would be able to finally reply to all my texts and Facebook messages from the day, so responses would all be very late or really early in the morning.
“It was a bit upsetting at the beginning going from the uni lifestyle where you’re really comfortable, seeing your friends every day to having no time off and pushing yourself all the time.
“I wouldn’t be able to see anyone I knew outside of work for three or four weeks at a time. Sometimes on a Sunday night, I would sneak out of the office to see friends for dinner around 7pm and then come back in to work, where I’d stay until 3am.”
At Lizzie’s firm, she explains, colleagues higher up than her would nap under their desks, showered and kept shirts in the office before sitting back down to their computers.
Despite all this, Lizzie maintains “it’s still more tame than people expect it to be”.
For the initiated, her story is barely surprising. Other grad schemers I speak to are keen to top her soul-crushing experiences of office Sundays and an energy drink diet. They brag about their miserable hours, dinners at desks and eight pint lunches in a baffling one-upmanship. That’s nothing, they’re quick to say, launching into a pinstriped reinterpretation of the Four Yorkshiremen.
Enter Ed, now in his mid-twenties, and a rising star at a major international bank. A lot of those I interviewed point out banking isn’t where grad scheme horror stories come from anymore but Ed’s stories say they opposite.
At around the same time footage emerged of a city trader’s first day initiation – eating six quarter-pounders in three minutes – Ed was able to one-up him.
“During the first week, they made me eat my height in Subway sandwiches. I foolishly admitted I was a huge fan of Subway so they brought me six feet of subs, 12 in all, to eat by the end of the day. The first three were easy. I paced myself throughout the day, nibbling whenever I could. I finally got the last one down at 8pm, which was stone cold at that point with the cheese congealed. I just added shitloads of sweet chilli sauce. I was happy to accept the challenge.”
And after his first successful trade came a bizarre ritual: a colleague sneaked up behind him and cut off his tie. He then had to run laps of the floor as his seniors threw plastic cups of water at him.
Also in his first week, his bosses told him to reserve a table at a nearby restaurant for four. They gave him an address and said they would meet him there. Ed followed the instructions and went into a building down the road, before realising, when the reception met him, that he was in fact at a gay sauna.
Each of these grads brush off their initiation and first days but for someone naïve outside their world, it’s hard not be a little stunned. Ed’s stories are hardly traumatic: his experiences are down the vanilla end of the scale. There are others who tell grotesque tales of bosses’ ordering their new grad schemers to do things you would not believe. But like everyone else, they are terrified of being identified by their stories. They’re paranoid about losing the job into which they have already poured so many sleepless nights, sweat and beer.
Some of the stories involving booze are too good, confirming your stereotypes of what these jobs are like. Returning to Paul the advertiser on his second day, he remembers a hazy day of being taken out by older colleagues.
“We took over a whole Thai restaurant and were smashing the beers. We had nothing on till 4pm, a meeting with one of the most senior execs in the corporation, so we had three hours to kill. The older grad schemers, a year or two ahead, took us out to a pub in Soho and we drank about six more pints.
“They kept encouraging us to drink, saying we were being such pussies and during their first two weeks they went out every night, like that. When the talk with the senior exec and the 20-odd grad schemers came around I was sitting in the front row and fell asleep, because I was so drunk.
“He laughed it off at the time but I was roasted in my first assessment two or three weeks later.”
Those who managed to escape are far more willing to dish the dirt on their time in the grinder. Meet Dom, who recently left his grad scheme after a year in recruitment which sounds manic. He graduated from Bristol, like Paul, a couple of years below.
At a job in London’s Victoria, he joined the magic roundabout like Lizzie, revolving with a knackering cycle of boozing with his colleagues after work but wanting to do them over in the office the next day.
“It was clear from the off that if we wanted to do well, we would have to put the hours in. You didn’t give a shit about the person next to you because that was how you would get ahead.
“Our contracted hours were from 8:30am till 6pm. The reality was so different. If you wanted to get anywhere, you had to be in by 7am to get the best candidates [to recruit]. It made for quite an unhealthy atmosphere of shutting the door in front of your colleagues so you could get in faster.
“When you wanted to get a candidate at the same time as someone else, the loudest and biggest person would win. ‘Fuck off, that’s my guy’, that kind of thing. Some people thrive in that culture, and I kind of sadistically enjoyed it.
“Evening hours were the worst: it was a dick-measuring contest to see who could stay the longest. Even if you didn’t have any work to do, you’d stay late knowing your boss would be able to see the next day you’d logged off at 9pm and not 7pm.”
Those were just the hours if they were working, claims Dom. His descriptions of nights out are the absolute superlative of Cityboys and girls on the lash. And once again, he sees the example of the fresh-faced wannabe doing whatever it takes to fit in.
“Wednesday, Thursday, Friday we’d leave at 6pm on the dot and just get nailed. It was so debaucherous and there was quite a lot of gak. The head of HR tried to sleep with me once.
“You see a lot of people descend into it. I think it’s specific to young people in London with money. It’s the first time in your life you properly have money and we’re quite sheep-like –– we’ll follow people. A lot of sweet, nice guys would become Pablo Escobar with the cocaine.
“I would never have called that with lots of them, they fall into it. We’re young and like to try stuff, so you’ll throw yourself in. It’s tragically easier to say yes than no.”
Names have been changed to protect identities.