Junior bankers who were recently fired from Bank of Montreal’s metals and mining group used work-sharing platforms to circulate crude jokes and at least one obscene image, which were discovered during an internal investigation after another employee complained, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

One of the photos that was distributed, known as the “Wood” meme, depicts a man sitting naked on a bed and became a popular internet meme during the pandemic. The investigation, which resulted in six bankers leaving the firm, also uncovered homophobic language used by employees.

A spokesperson for Bank of Montreal described the incident as “completely unacceptable,” adding that the bank takes matters of misconduct very seriously and immediately began probing the matter after the employee escalated it.

But multiple former Bank of Montreal employees who spoke with Bloomberg said it wasn’t the first case of crude jokes being circulated, and that in some respects, the junior bankers’ actions were in keeping with a culture that has existed in BMO’s high-pressure mining banking unit.

Bankers at competing firms in Toronto’s financial district, some of whom previously worked for Bank of Montreal, described its mining and metals group as extremely demanding — sometimes asking more of junior analysts and associates than other banks do. Employees have pulled all-night sessions to finalize deal documents and will work through weekends to meet deadlines. In recent years, the bank has explicitly encouraged entry-level analysts to take at least one day off on the weekends, to manage concerns about overwork.

The mining and metals group has previously faced at least one other similar workplace investigation that was sparked by internal complaints and resulted in employee departures, according to people familiar with the matter. 

BMO ranks among the top banks for deals within the global mining industry, advising on high-profile transactions including Teck Resources Ltd.’s pending US$9 billion coal-unit divestiture and Newmont Corp.’s $15 billion takeover of Newcrest Mining Ltd. last year. 

At the foundation of those deals, which can net millions of dollars in fees, are young, mostly male graduates from business and engineering schools in Canada who work long hours on financial projections, presentations and deal documents in support of senior investment bankers. 

In investment banking in general, “hours are long, tensions are high and egos and management oversight is thin,” said Bill Vlaad, a former investment banker and chief executive officer of Vlaad and Co., a recruitment agency.

“Understanding acceptable professional behavior seems to be another organizational tool that firms are struggling to manage when employees are only in the office two or three days a week,” he said. 

One person who previously worked in BMO’s mining and metals group said that while the experience young bankers receive is top-notch and there’s a prestige to working in the group, it can be an intimidating environment, and junior bankers tend to adopt a work-hard, play-hard culture in the group to fit in.

People familiar with the recent incident said the bankers who circulated those jokes and memes claim that they didn’t intend their comments or actions to be malicious, and were falling in line with the group’s pre-existing culture and style of communicating. One director-level banker left as a result of the complaint, but several people said they were surprised someone more senior wasn’t let go, given the apparent lapse in supervision of the junior employees. 

Bank of Montreal didn’t respond to specific questions about the situation. Spokesperson Kelly Hechler said employees who fail to meet “our standard of respect, inclusivity and professionalism” are subject to “disciplinary actions up to and including termination of employment.”