Firm leaders need to ensure everyone on their staffs stay on the same page about security. Staff members must know how they should dispense sensitive client information, making it possible for them to be responsive, but not nosy. Yet even with all the safeguards, the ultimate security comes from hiring trustworthy people for your practice.
Candy Lee of Candy J. Lee Financial Planning & Money Management in Seattle expects her staff to abide by the code of ethics and confidentiality agreements they all sign when they start working at her advisory firm.
But Lee also tries to “hire good quality employees” to make sure all client information stays safe. “We are too small a firm to isolate much information from anyone on staff,” she says.
Lee takes precautions beyond the ethics and confidentiality agreements and the smart hiring. She makes sure, for instance, that cleaning contractors, who come in at night, have no access to client files, which are locked up every evening.
“We never leave any sensitive information out on a desk,” Lee says.
She also doubles down on training new staff members about how to not dispense confidential information to the wrong inquisitive person, who may often be a family member of the clients. “Just because they give a Social Security number and birth date doesn’t mean we spill our guts to them,” Lee tells new employees.
She has the new hires run through practice drills to make sure they don’t ever utter sensitive client information to an unauthorized caller or visitor.
It’s possible to train new employees to become security minded, but “trustworthiness is something you learn at your own kitchen table,” says Joseph Birkofer, a partner at Legacy Asset Management in Houston.
When he interviews prospective hires for his firm, Birkofer asks “probing questions about how they treat their own security issues,” he says. But even if the interviewees’ answers reflect lapses in their knowledge or attitudes, Birkofer makes no “black marks” on their record barring them from getting hired. Rather he notes the need for further training and makes sure to also address the larger and more significant questions to help him draw accurate conclusions about the interviewee’s basic integrity.
“Someone may look good on paper, but you have to ask them more questions,” he says. He recommends asking what may seem like “soft questions” such as about an interviewees’ social life, grades, or family. Answers to those kinds of questions, if the interviewer makes sure to not ask them in too leading a manner, divulge much about a person’s character, Birkofer says.
He, like Lee, knows that if he hires the candidate, as soon as they get on board he will share sensitive client information with them. And like Lee, he allows all staff privy to such details as clients’ divorces or onsets of dementia—“all the laundry”—because clients and their families will expect the entire firm to be sensitive to such issues, he says. His staff is not so large that he can afford to have someone spending a few months on the payroll but out of the loop, he says.
That reality underscores his need to make sure that during the interview and hiring stages he determines who are the trustworthy prospects.
Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.