Hit ‘Reset’ on Firm Culture
Advisors need to examine whether they’re truly creating a respectful work environment as sexual harrassment allegations overwhelm other industries.
Advisors need to examine whether they’re truly creating a respectful work environment as sexual harrassment cases hit other industries.
THE WOUNDS ARE OPEN, AND IT’S TIME TO START down the long road to healing. Before we can do that, however, we have to wonder why we haven’t seen more reports about sexual harassment out of the wealth management industry. In part, I believe it’s because our male-heavy finance culture went through a slew of cases in the 1990s, including the infamous “Boom-boom room” case at Smith Barney.
These cases heightened awareness of the subject. Yet the recent departure of two long-term, male, high-ranking employees at Fidelity Investments offers evidence that we still have a long way to go. Thankfully, Fidelity’s leadership handled this head-on and realized that training around these issues needs to be ongoing.
Is this form of abuse a problem in smaller advisory firms? Of course it is, but there are differences between large and small firms.
First, employees at smaller firms are less likely to have support from large human resources departments, and it’s doubtful their allegations will make headlines. As a result, they may be more hesitant to come forward with harassment claims.
Second, the smaller the firm, the more sway the owner of that firm has in setting the culture. Most firms are run by men, and if they are obtuse about sexual matters, there is probably an issue. I heard recently from a woman who was invited to join a 100% male firm because they wanted to be more inclusive. She learned quickly just how insensitive the men in the firm were about the issue of sexual harassment.
When placed in a sexually uncomfortable situation, women have historically used a variety of techniques to defuse the situation — laughing it off, avoiding the subject or being icy. Sometimes we just gave in. Our jobs are important to us, and we often can’t afford to lose them.
Accepting the status quo was sometimes the only choice. Being in the one-down situation made it tough for women to fight back as a group. What we lack in the workplace is the
After reports of sexual harassment at Fidelity Investments, CEO Abigail Johnson moved her office closer to fund managers.
setting of a tone that makes harassment less likely. Sadly, many men don’t even realize it’s happening.
This has to change.
Is penalizing the perpetrators of sexual harassment the way forward? I’m afraid if this is the only action taken, we all will lose. While abusers must be held accountable, will punishment after the fact change the underlying culture that allowed their bad behavior in the first place?
There are two broad actions that would make lasting positive change for small firms as well as large ones. Ten-person independent firms have as much responsibility to support and protect workers as their much larger peers.
First, all financial services firms should immediately fill their boards and executive-level positions with at least half women. Boards need to reflect the diversity of the broader population. That would mean we need to hire more women and minorities. The CFP Board has several initiatives in place to make this happen.
Fresh, diverse leadership can more easily reset the tone of organizations.
Second, financial firms need to develop and codify positive cultures going forward. Requirements for open communication, intolerance of bad behavior and how to deal with sexuality in the workplace should be addressed in corporate engagement standards. Employees should be assigned as culture keepers to foster a great working environment, and they must be given the power to address those people who are not following the culture.
Of course, we are all sexual beings. Sexual behavior outside of what society views as right is rarely discussed in a healthy manner.
People harboring sexual desires outside the norm frequently develop unhealthy mechanisms to cope with their feelings. Porn addiction and the hiring of sex workers are behaviors we may see in people who otherwise lead what appear to be exemplary lives.
People in power have the ability to fulfill sexual needs by taking advantage of those they oversee in the workplace. It’s important to create a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, provide regular opportunities for open and direct communication so all employees can discuss uncomfortable situations, and make ample use of therapists trained in workplace communication to reduce the chance that people in power will act on these impulses. Of course, the people in power have to set these policies in the first place.
In our firm, we discuss openly uncomfortable issues integral to our personal lives and the wider world. Our corporate engagement standards are reviewed and updated at least yearly, or whenever we hire a new employee. We even have a therapist on retainer to work with us as a group and individually help with communication and culture issues as they arise. This fosters an environment of safety, trust and encouragement to address hard issues as they come up.
What about normal sexual attraction? With a significant amount of our time spent with coworkers, how can it not happen? Communication and sane policies about how to deal with attraction in the workplace are a must.
Fostering a safe environment for conversation and support is critical. I suggest making “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott required reading, or offering sensitivity training (I recommend Fierce Inc. training). These actions can build the cornerstone for healthy workplace communication. Employees may also develop the skills they need to handle healthy workplace romance, as well as harassment and abuse.
A workplace is like a family, and all families have some dysfunction. By addressing our dysfunctions openly through empathy, communication and a desire to create a great life for all involved, we can create healthier and happier families.
Add in a change in the balance of corporate power, and we will be well on our way to healing and creating a better future for all of us.
For more insights on how to stamp out sexual harassment in wealth management, please see p. 18
Is penalizing perpetrators of sexual harassment the way forward? If this is the only action taken, we all may lose.