A kinder, gentler Lehman Brothers

Lehman and other Wall Street firms are using flexible schedules and other perks to woo employees returning to the workforce after a hiatus. Fortune's Patricia Sellers reports.

By Patricia Sellers, Fortune editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- As a managing director in charge of software-equity research at CIBC, Melissa Eisenstat worked 70-hour weeks, spent 70 percent of her time on the road, and, she recalls, "when Bill Gates sneezed, I was frantic."

In 2004, at the age of 42, she quit the life of a banker to chase her true passion: the cello. She put in eight-hour days with the instrument - practicing, and taking and teaching lessons - and even performed at Carnegie Hall with an amateur orchestra. "But then I realized that they weren't going to call me and ask me to substitute for Yo-Yo Ma," she says. So she returned to Wall Street in 2006.

Eisenstat reentered the workforce through a Lehman Brothers (Charts) program called Encore. She now works a less manic 55 hours a week and doesn't travel, but makes about half her former seven-figure salary in her new, less exalted role as a VP in the equity-research group. "It's about keeping my sanity," she says.

Sanity, of course, has never been part of the bargain when it comes to working on Wall Street - until now. Following Lehman's lead, Goldman Sachs (Charts) launched its own return-to-work recruitment program, called New Directions, last May. And J.P. Morgan (Charts) and Deutsche Bank (Charts) have similar programs in the works.

Eschewing its longtime balance-is-for-wimps mindset, the Street is having a kinder, gentler HR moment. Lehman chief diversity officer Anne Erni, who created Encore, speaks to the value of inviting back mid-career executives: "They hit the ground running, with a greater degree of maturity. It's easier to retool than train for judgment and experience."

Encore and the other programs are in part a reaction to a 2005 study, co-commissioned by Lehman, called "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps," which found that 37 percent of female and 24 percent of male professionals take some sort of career break (often because of inflexible schedules) and later have trouble reentering.

Lehman Brothers president Joe Gregory says his firm needs to challenge Wall Street's "last coat on the chair" culture. "We have to create flexibility," he says. "We can be the best company only if we get and keep the best people."

Erni says she launched Encore after hearing complaints inside Lehman that the pool of women for hire is meager. This past fall, for the second year of the program, she and her team e-mailed 16,000 employees, soliciting names of people who had quit corporate America and might be ready to come back.

Receiving 200 referrals, they invited 50 to interview for jobs in New York. Early this year they'll gather more candidates in Tokyo and London. Last year, among the 125 who attended the first Encore programs in New York City and London, Lehman hired 20.

Returning to the workforce after a hiatus is not without challenges. Half of those 20 Encore recruits work part-time or flexible hours and are paid less than in their former jobs. They also run the risk of being discounted - or even disliked - by co-workers who toil 24/7. To ease resentment, Lehman is promoting flextime as an option for all current employees in good standing.

Another Encore recruit, Robin Scheman, formerly the COO of Deutsche Bank's global real estate business, insists that Lehman is committed to the new approach. Currently the banker-turned-homemaker-turned-banker is working three days a week as head of training and career development for investment banking at Lehman.

Scheman, 44, finds that younger execs, in particular, demand some say over their schedules. "They hold the organization's feet to the fire," she says. Not just women, she adds. Indeed, of Encore's 50 applicants this year, seven are men.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.