How a Bank of America Executive Created a Tense Work Culture

Thomas K. Montag, the bank’s No. 2 executive, has long run its markets and corporate banking division with favoritism and an iron fist, employees say.

Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

A ‘Friend of Tom’ or ‘Can’t Be Bothered’: One Man’s Rules at Bank of America

Thomas K. Montag, the bank’s No. 2 executive, has long run its markets and corporate banking division with favoritism and an iron fist, employees say.

Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

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Early on in the pandemic, Bank of America found an innovative way to gauge the success of the bank’s work-from-home experiment: a spreadsheet, distributed to team managers daily, that pitted the productivity of people working from home against those who were still showing up at the office.

Created for Thomas K. Montag, the bank’s No. 2 executive, the spreadsheet, as described by two people with knowledge of it and according to images reviewed by The New York Times, listed markets employees in descending order of their profitability each day, with those working from the office on one side and those working from home on the other. The evidence on which work environment yielded better results was mixed, those people said, but the message that the spreadsheet sent was not: Mr. Montag, Bank of America’s chief operating officer, was keeping score.

Mr. Montag oversees about 17,000 people in Bank of America’s global banking and markets division — and the people who work for him have learned to speak his unique cultural language. During the pandemic, workers of his who showed up at the office called themselves “warriors.” Those who stayed home were referred to as “tapped out,” like defeated cage fighters. “Friends of Tom,” as his favored employees were widely but unofficially known, got bonuses, promotions and access to the boss. Others were marked for pay reductions on something referred to as the “can’t be bothered” list.

Mr. Montag, 64, is the second-most-powerful person at Bank of America after Brian Moynihan, the chief executive and, at $19 million in compensation last year, the second-best paid. As the world confronted the pandemic last spring, Mr. Montag initially pressured markets workers to keep showing up at the office despite stay-at-home orders that drove many other banking employees away, current and recently departed Bank of America employees said. Some of Mr. Montag’s workers grew fearful that if they didn’t go into the office, they would lose their jobs or their bonuses.

In a February interview from the bank’s Midtown Manhattan tower, Mr. Montag said he was worried about the market turmoil in the early days of the pandemic and went to the office every day. “I was the battlefront for us in a way,” he explained.

The wartime reference is one indication that Mr. Montag is a vestige of a Wall Street that has mostly vanished. Over the dozen years that Mr. Montag has been an executive at Bank of America, his hard-driving approach has been increasingly out of step with the contemporary world of finance.

Today’s leaders try to portray themselves as searching and vulnerable, emphasizing their humane sides and talking up the idea that they can do good while raking in profits. Competition for talent with private-equity firms and Silicon Valley has forced banks to rethink their demands of young workers, although grueling hours — which recently drove junior bankers at Goldman Sachs to confront their managers — persist. The forced adaptation to working from home has raised nettlesome questions about whether the financial world, historically one where long hours and performative masochism have been celebrated, will emerge from the pandemic with a more compassionate approach.

Colleagues describe Mr. Montag as shrewd and charismatic — qualities he deployed to help transform Bank of America into a corporate lending and trading powerhouse after its merger in 2008 with Merrill Lynch. But some say his management style is demanding and erratic. His is a world where certain people are primed for major leadership roles, while others are jettisoned for seemingly minor offenses. He likes grand displays of dedication and plays favorites, polarizing employees.

“Tom demanded excellence,” said Robert Grillo, who was a managing director in the bond division of Bank of America from 2009 to 2016. “He was very motivational in speaking. He had an incredible work ethic. But his favoring of certain groups, and people, I think, was detrimental to the total culture.”

When the pandemic began, Goldman Sachs quickly sent traders home, equipping them with the tools they needed. Citigroup looked for office space in the suburbs to accommodate employees who lived there and wanted to avoid commuting for fear of infection. Morgan Stanley’s chief executive, James Gorman, caught the coronavirus and stayed away from the office.

Mr. Montag was slower to embrace remote work, and the results were attrition and flagging morale. Since the start of this year, at least 11 senior markets employees, including several traders and some department heads, have left Mr. Montag’s divisions, along with the chair of global corporate and investment banking. More than 100 employees took layoff packages as a way to exit while keeping their stock, said a person familiar with the figures. Some departing employees took new jobs or were pushed out. Many said they left over frustration with the culture, which the pandemic made less tolerable.

This account of Mr. Montag’s tenure at Bank of America, and the culture he has fostered, is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or alienating business associates. Unlike some rivals, who have implemented compulsory return-to-office plans for June or July, Bank of America has yet to specify when it will ask employees who are still working remotely to return to the office, saying only that it will be sometime after Labor Day. The bank, more than 200,000 people strong, continues to churn out profits; its first-quarter earnings report reflected solid gains in Mr. Montag’s divisions.

These days, the general mood among employees is one of resignation, according to people who still work there. The biggest question now may be whether Mr. Montag’s professional future will be affected by his handling of the pandemic — and what the answer to that question says about whether Bank of America, or Wall Street itself, is ready for change.

The culture that made Montag

Born and raised in Portland, Ore., Mr. Montag started his career at Goldman Sachs in 1985, when a fraternity of powerful men ruled Wall Street, taking wild market risks and putting young hires through a military-style hazing process memorably depicted in Michael Lewis’s “Liar’s Poker.”

A former offensive tackle for the high school football team, whose first job involved knocking on borrowers’ doors at night to ask them to repay loans, Mr. Montag worked at a trading desk at Goldman that specialized in complex products known as swaps. His attention to detail distinguished him, said colleagues from that time, as did his hiring and mentorship of younger people, some of whom help run the firm today.

In 2008, Mr. Montag joined the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch to run its markets division. Just weeks after his arrival, the financial crisis hit, and Bank of America, a staid institution known for its consumer business, bought Merrill, known for its aggressive culture. The job of integration fell to Mr. Montag, who soon became head of both global banking and markets.


Anne Finucane, vice chairman of Bank of America, said that the transition after the company’s merger with Merrill Lynch was rocky at first, but that Mr. Montag “made it work.”Credit…Alex Flynn/Bloomberg

“The early days were certainly rocky, but he made it work,” recalled Anne Finucane, Bank of America’s vice chairman.

Mr. Montag’s divisions blossomed. Today, Bank of America is second only to JPMorgan by assets in the U.S. It touches one out of every two American households through its sprawling consumer operations. Its corporate banking and trading units serve companies like Bayer, Salesforce and AT&T.

Those achievements were an outgrowth of Mr. Montag’s cultivation of big clients and knack for spotting unfolding business opportunities. But those talents were intertwined with a style and set of expectations that some employees found unreasonable. On Friday afternoons over the years, after the markets had closed, Mr. Montag sometimes sought out floor managers at their desks, current and former employees said, leaving Post-it notes scrawled with the words, “Where are you?” if they weren’t around.

When Karen Fang, a senior bond product saleswoman, attended a meeting in Rome in 2013 right after her wedding, Mr. Montag gave her a Lucite trophy for her dedication, attendees said. (Ms. Fang said that she had always planned a honeymoon for a later point.) In 2014, he established what he called the “can’t be bothered” list, an annual roster of employees whose bonuses would be docked because they did not carry out administrative tasks such as participating in colleague performance reviews.

If expectations over hours and certain duties were clear enough, some of Mr. Montag’s other directives were not. At meetings to discuss employee pay, Mr. Montag would occasionally trim small amounts, like $25,000 or $50,000, from bonuses of close to a million dollars, meeting attendees recalled, for reasons that weren’t clear to them. But other employees received bonus hikes at the last minute, those people said, earning the nickname “FOT,” or friend of Tom.

Megan Tobias Neely, an assistant professor of organization at the Copenhagen Business School, said that in her research on financial firms she often encounters cultures based around a single, dominant personality. People who conform to the behaviors upheld by the leader “are rewarded with all kinds of opportunities and advancement,” she said.

“But not everybody can,” she continued, “because not everybody will fit in or feel like they’re comfortable in that type of environment.”

To those who fell in line, Mr. Montag was a supportive and inspiring boss, current and former employees said. “Tom really cares about people in an old school way that’s not typical in today’s corporate world,” said Gene Reilly, a hedge-fund manager who worked for him as Bank of America’s global head of quantitative trading in the early 2010s. “Whether a colleague needs heart surgery or someone’s parent is dying in the hospital, Tom makes the phone call and helps anyway he can.”

Mr. Montag denied playing favorites.

“There’s obviously no friends-of-Tom list,” he said in February. “Certainly there’s people that I think are good, that I think represent the firm well, that have worked very well together.” He added, “and so I promote them, or help them, or work with them well.”

Promoting women, patronizing women

Several years ago, Mr. Montag launched a sabbatical program for employees at the bank for 10 years or more that has been especially popular with women. He also promoted women to senior positions, including Wei Wang, who oversees the bank’s business in China, and Orly Avidan, a veteran trader and client liaison whom he named head of stock sales late last year. “I think it’s incredibly helpful to have a champion like Tom,” Ms. Avidan said.

But during the past five years, as the broader culture became more attuned to misogyny and sexual harassment, Bank of America had its own reckoning with some of those issues. During some of those years, Mr. Montag’s divisions confidentially settled about 15 complaints annually with employees who made credible allegations of misconduct or of working in a toxic environment, according to someone who was directly involved in handling those matters. Some of those complaints alleged gender-based harassment or discrimination.

Such accusations are not uncommon on Wall Street. But 15 credible complaints per year is high, said people with direct knowledge of those matters at two competing banks during the same period; the number of such complaints in the markets and corporate banking divisions of their banks, those people said, was well under 10.

A spokeswoman for Bank of America, Jessica Oppenheim, called 15 confidential settlements per year over alleged misconduct “grossly inaccurate.” She would not elaborate, adding, “there is no basis to say that Bank of America has more of these issues than competitors or other large corporations.” She said the bank pays women equitably, and that its female employees report higher job-satisfaction levels than male workers do.

But current and former employees said the culture Mr. Montag built also allowed women to be objectified. In addition, the success of employees in his divisions also depended to a disproportionate degree on whether Mr. Montag favored them, and as a result, professional concerns about his proteges were sometimes overlooked.

One case study in the complicated matrix of performance and personal regard that informed Mr. Montag’s decisions was Sanaz Zaimi, current and former employees said.

Ms. Zaimi was hired by Mr. Montag from Goldman to help lead global bond sales and certain stock products in 2009. In 2016, she became the sole head of bond sales, and in 2019, she was named chief executive of the bank’s newly established European brokerage arm in Paris. Within the bank, Ms. Zaimi was widely regarded as bright and capable in her area of expertise, which was structuring complex products for clients. But she could also be unfiltered and harsh with employees, past and current colleagues said.

In annual meetings with Mr. Moynihan, the bank’s chief executive, to discuss rising stars, Mr. Montag regularly pitched Ms. Zaimi for additional roles, said a person with direct knowledge of past meetings. However, poor feedback from Ms. Zaimi’s employees and peers over her management style made her a long-shot for them, this person added.


Sanaz Zaimi at a summit in 2016. She was hired by Mr. Montag in 2009, and her rise at Bank of America has been swift.Credit…Fortune Conferences

Ms. Zaimi seemed to be aware of her situation. She would occasionally say to colleagues that although she frequently scored in the bottom quartile of the firm’s annual 360-degree employee reviews — which incorporated feedback from subordinates, peers and superiors — Mr. Montag had told her it didn’t matter, according to two people to whom she made the comments. She also noted that if Mr. Montag were ever to leave the bank, she would leave the very same day, those people added. Ms. Zaimi declined to comment.

Ms. Zaimi, now 51, is still with the bank. Some other women are not. And the reasons for their departures, they told colleagues, were rooted in the trouble they had trying to succeed in Mr. Montag’s idiosyncratic and at times male-dominated culture.

In 2017, a junior woman on one of the bond-trading desks complained after male colleagues grabbed a plastic curling iron out of her bag and joked that it was a dildo, according to a complaint described to The Times and three people with knowledge of the episode. The woman, who had occasional, informal interactions on the trading floor with Mr. Montag but was multiple levels subordinate to him, was granted a settlement, the people said. She declined to comment. Ms. Oppenheim, the bank spokeswoman, said Bank of America doesn’t tolerate discrimination and that any allegations of it are thoroughly investigated and met with disciplinary actions where appropriate.

In 2016, a bond trading manager named Megan Messina — who was in Mr. Montag’s markets division but had only occasional contact with him — sued Bank of America, accusing it of pay disparities and calling the group she had worked in a “bro’s club.”

“Beneath the veneer of a world-class financial institution, B of A treats their female managing directors as second-class citizens,” her complaint said. Ms. Messina, it added, “is no exception. Every year throughout the liability period in this case, Messina has earned substantially less than similarly situated males solely because she is a woman.”

Ms. Messina’s suit was settled later that year. The terms were not disclosed.

Pandemic pressures

When the pandemic started, Mr. Montag initially urged workers to keep coming into the office. He began cycling to work every day in jeans and sneakers, instead of showing up in his usual coat and tie. Once there, he thanked those who were present, and sometimes emailed others who were working remotely to “come to my office,” current and former employees said — which some recipients interpreted as a thinly veiled demand that they return.

“Our backup system was in Stamford,” he said in the February interview, referring to the city in Connecticut where the bank directed some workers. “It wasn’t in your bedroom.”


When the pandemic started, Mr. Montag initially urged workers to keep coming into the office.Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

Officially, the bank told trading-floor employees that, beginning in late March, they could work from home. But in smaller group phone calls and individual conversations, a different message was conveyed by markets-division overseers, said current and recently departed employees — including from a senior human-resources representative.

Last spring, as the pandemic raged through New York, Alexandria Taylor, who runs human resources for the banking and markets divisions, held a call with some trading floor managers and suggested they cajole their team members back to the office, said three people with knowledge of the calls. Other senior executives placed similar calls, but Ms. Taylor’s message carried weight because of her role as a representative of employee welfare and her rapport with Mr. Montag, current and recently departed employees said.

Ms. Taylor does not report to Mr. Montag. But the rapport between them has been a source of consternation for years, said current and former employees, because it meant one of the people best situated to correct the problems in Mr. Montag’s culture was also unusually close with him in ways that drew notice.

The two collaborated frequently on employee matters, and Ms. Taylor eventually moved her desk to a spot right outside Mr. Montag’s office. At one point, the executives even embarked on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat keto diet together, according to two people who discussed it with Ms. Taylor at the time. They were so at ease around each other that at one point last November she openly scratched or rubbed Mr. Montag’s back on the trading floor, according to three people who witnessed the interaction. Ms. Taylor said in a statement that “these items are inaccurate.”

During the pandemic, the productivity spreadsheet, titled “Tom/Dashboard,” according to an image of it, allowed Mr. Montag to track individual profits and losses of employees working at home versus those still in the office, according to that and other images and two people with knowledge of the spreadsheets. In the office, said one of those employees, Mr. Montag would sometimes pop by individual desks and say, “I knew you’d be here.”

Last summer, after news reports about their work-from-home policies, the bank took a more accommodating stance, current and former employees said. By fall, the spreadsheet had vanished from circulation, two of those people said.

“I do believe, long term, that it’s better culturally to know people and see them and be around them some,” Mr. Montag said in February. “Physical presence is good.”

It’s unclear how long Mr. Montag will be present himself. In February, he said that given his age, at some point “they’re going to kick me out of here.” And in a note to some employees last July, he appeared sanguine about his career. “I came to New York to make a few dollars, go back to Oregon, and buy a house,” he wrote. “Everything else has been gravy.”

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