Stamp­ing Out Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment

Here’s how in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors can build a cul­ture of zero tol­er­ance for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, Kim­berly Foss says.

Financial Planning - - CONTENT - By Kim­berly Foss

Here’s how in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors can build a cul­ture of zero tol­er­ance for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Em­pow­er­ment that comes from run­ning your own shop can pro­vide a wall of pro­tec­tion from those who would un­fairly use su­pe­rior po­si­tions as lever­age.

SEX­UAL HA­RASS­MENT IS NOT pri­mar­ily about at­trac­tion — it’s about power. Give more power to women, the rea­son­ing goes, and sex­ual ha­rass­ment grad­u­ally fades away. Un­for­tu­nately, this logic isn’t al­ways borne out. Con­sider Fi­delity.

The Bos­ton-based fi­nan­cial firm is led by sev­eral vi­sion­ary and prin­ci­pled women, in­clud­ing its CEO Abi­gail John­son and Kath­leen Mur­phy, pres­i­dent of Fi­delity Per­sonal In­vest­ing, a unit with more than 12 mil­lion cus­tomer ac­counts and $1 tril­lion in as­sets. Both women are in­cluded among For­tune mag­a­zine’s Most Pow­er­ful Women.

But even with strong fe­male lead­er­ship, Fi­delity found it­self in the throes of a sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dal. In Oc­to­ber, two se­nior male ex­ec­u­tives at Fi­delity left for mak­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments amid what some de­scribe as a broader cul­ture of sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion and bul­ly­ing.

Fi­delity isn’t alone. Al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and class-ac­tion law­suits have plagued re­spected Wall Street firms such as Smith Barney and Mer­rill Lynch over the past few decades. But the Fi­delity con­tro­versy could hit closer to home for in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors, as the firm is a ma­jor provider of clear­ing, cus­to­dial and other ser­vices .

Fi­delity says it has taken a num­ber of steps to fos­ter a re­spect­ful work en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing a sex­ual ha­rass­ment re­sponse com­mit­tee. “As our CEO, Abby John­son, has made clear, when al­le­ga­tions of ha­rass­ment or other in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior are brought to our at­ten­tion, we in­ves­ti­gate them im­me­di­ately and take prompt and ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion,” Fi­delity spokesman Vin­cent Lo­por­chio says.

RED FLAGS

Ha­rass­ment and out­raged re­sponses to it are not new, of course. In the 1980s, a male friend ad­vised me that I would not be suc­cess­ful in the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try be­cause of my gen­der, as I re­lated in my book “Wealthy by De­sign.” I wish that had been the worst thing that had hap­pened. But it wasn’t.

I re­mem­ber the fran­tic feel­ing of study­ing for my se­cu­ri­ties li­cens­ing ex­ams while run­ning the gaunt­let of sim­u­la­tions, train­ing ses­sions and other ex­er­cises that were — and in many cases, still are — part of the on­board­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for fi­nan­cial con­sul­tants.

After in­ter­view­ing with other houses, I staked ev­ery­thing on go­ing to work for Mer­rill Lynch. In the midst of this fran­tic time, I felt grate­ful when a re­gional man­ager of­fered to help me pre­pare for my ex­ams. But not long after I ar­rived at his pala­tial res­i­dence, he be­gan to try to kiss me … and worse.

When I re­fused his ad­vances and told him to call me a cab, he said that, if I left, I would never work for his firm.

I took a deep breath and said I would rather be out of a job and still have my per­sonal in­tegrity in­tact. Thank­fully, I was able to get in the cab and leave.

Mer­rill Lynch de­clined to com­ment last month about the in­ci­dent.

Years of sim­i­lar in­ci­dents, many of which ended much worse than my own story, have forced ma­jor firms to es­tab­lish guide­lines, pro­to­cols, hot­lines and no-tol­er­ance poli­cies re­gard­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment and mis­con­duct. And yet, even after all th­ese years, the prob­lem is still ram­pant.

A young as­so­ci­ate of mine who worked pre­vi­ously at an­other large firm told me re­cently that the cul­ture is still un­com­fort­ably sim­i­lar to what I ex­pe­ri­enced all those years ago.

CON­CRETE STEPS

Here are four con­crete steps in­de­pen­dents can take to help change the cul­ture:

• Open­ing up the top ranks of man­age­ment to women will ul­ti­mately ad­vance the cam­paign for a ha­rass­ment-free work­place. As the cur­rent prob­lems at Fi­delity sug­gest, this is cer­tainly not a cure-all, but there is room for im­prove­ment. More­over, a re­cent GAO study in­di­cates that women have made lit­tle or no progress to­ward in­creas­ing their pres­ence in the in­dus­try since 2007.

• The in­de­pen­dent fi­nan­cial plan­ning in­dus­try must con­tinue to press for zero tol­er­ance of sex­ual mis­con­duct of any type. Un­for­tu­nately, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and gen­der bias is not limited to spe­cific firms or work­places; ad­vi­sor con­fer­ences can be­come hubs of un­wanted com­ments, at­ti­tudes and ac­tiv­ity.

“I would walk through ex­hibit halls as a plan­ner and I would be asked whose as­sis­tant I am. Why did [they] as­sume that?” asked Bre­anna Reish, an ex­pe­ri­enced plan­ner who re­cently launched her own firm, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent news re­port.

The 2017 Dal­las con­fer­ence of the XY Plan­ning Net­work, a group of fee-only ad­vi­sors who spe­cial­ize in Gen X and Gen Y clien­tele, opened with the an­nounce­ment of a code of con­duct that pro­hibits any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion or ha­rass­ment.

“Sex­ual lan­guage and im­agery is not ap­pro­pri­ate for any con­fer­ence venue, in­clud­ing talks, work­shops, par­ties, Twit­ter or other on­line me­dia,” the code read. The app for the con­fer­ence even in­cluded a func­tion that fa­cil­i­tated the re­port­ing of in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­duct.

PRO­MOTE DIVER­SITY

XYPN also of­fered a net­work­ing track fo­cused on women ad­vi­sors.

The group has formed its own diver­sity com­mit­tee, and it is ded­i­cated to help­ing mem­ber ad­vi­sors pro­mote diver­sity in their firms and prac­tices. Such ini­tia­tives are an im­por­tant be­gin­ning and other firms need to join the move­ment.

• We should em­brace the adage that was pop­u­lar­ized by the Bri­tish Trans­port Po­lice in their cam­paign against ter­ror­ism: “See it. Say it. Sorted.”

The Har­vey We­in­steins of the world can­not sys­tem­at­i­cally vic­tim­ize un­less by­standers look the other way. We need to stare sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the face and call it what it is.

• Fi­nally, we must lis­ten and be­lieve in the voices of women and oth­ers who have been si­lenced for too long. It is very dif­fi­cult to speak truth to power — es­pe­cially when the speaker has suf­fered the abuse of that same power.

We need to take up the cause of those who have been wronged. When they talk, we need to lis­ten and take ac­tion.

For years, in­de­pen­dent fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sors have been lead­ing the way in pro­vid­ing rea­son­ably priced ser­vices with a com­mit­ment to the client’s in­ter­ests above all.

It is time now for us to lead the charge to erad­i­cate all forms of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion from the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try.

The Fi­delity con­tro­versy could hit closer to home for in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors, as the firm is a ma­jor provider of clear­ing, cus­to­dial and other ser­vices.

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