He exposed Fisher's comments. Here's what Alex Chalekian wants the industry to do next
PASADENA, California — Ever since Alex Chalekian tweeted his disgust last month at sexually charged comments Ken Fisher made at the exclusive Tiburon CEO Summit, he can no longer walk through conferences he attends without being stopped.
Men and women approach to say thank you, he says. Others pull him aside to recount sexual assaults or intimidation they have experienced at industry events or at work. In some cases, it’s the first time they’ve ever spoken about them, he says.
For their part, several financial services companies are responding positively.
Firms have called Chalekian, he says, seeking his input about updating their policies or for help crafting new ones to try to keep event attendees and employees safe from sexual harassment, assault or discrimination. Organizers of two financial industry events have been consulting with Chalekian. One adopted its first code of conduct and the other is tapping him for advice on diversifying its panel speakers. (Chalekian will speak at Financial Planning's In|Vest West conference next month on preventing sexual harassment in fintech and wealth management.)
While it’s not a role he sought, Chalekian says, it’s one he feels obligated to embrace. He wants to use his newfound prominence to create a “gold standard” of practices and policies for the financial services industry. These policies need to be spoken out loud prominently at the outset of conferences and signed onto as a condition of admission by attendees, and they should come with reporting mechanisms and consequences for damaging behavior, he and other experts say.
Broker-dealer Cambridge Investment Research, whose leaders did not contact him, decided to “formalize” a new code of conduct, in response to the comments he aired. The moment “should be a turning point” for the industry, Cambridge CEO Amy Webber and Executive Chairman Eric Schwartz wrote to the firm’s advisors.
Chalekian felt compelled to air his views on Fisher’s inappropriate remarks about women when it seemed nobody in the room — filled with CEOs and leaders from the largest firms in the industry — was going to say anything.
“I was the only one who spoke up. I don’t know why,” Chalekian said over lunch recently near the office of his advisory firm, Lake Avenue Financial, in Pasadena.
Chalekian, 43, says his three nieces are foremost in his mind when discussing sexual harassment in financial services.
“If they were in our industry, would I want them to be part of this?” he asks. “If I can’t change things now, when is it ever going to change?”
Despite high-profile scandals like the “boom-boom room” case a quarter-century ago, in which more than 2,000 women joined a lawsuit against Smith Barney for sexual harassment and wage discrimination, widespread problems in the industry persist.
One-third of women reported a high-prevalence of sexual misconduct in the wealth management industry in a broad-based SourceMedia survey last year. The study, which also covered workers in many white-collar industries, found the highest such reports in financial services. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Fisher is the most recent example of an industry leader called to account for demeaning or damaging comments or behavior.
From the main stage, the founder of Fisher Investments likened prospecting for clients to telling a woman, “Hey, I want to talk about what’s in your pants,” among other remarks for which he later apologized. Since then, investors have withdrawn nearly $3 billion from his firm, leaving about $112 billion, according to CNBC.
Asked why he publicly challenged a billionaire with unlimited resources, an exasperated look came over Chalekian’s face. He tucked his chin and lowered his gaze.
“It is 2019,” he said. “Why are we still dealing with this?”
Two women who backed up Chalekian’s tweet with tweets of their own — ESG investment consultant Sonya Dreizler, who advises financial advisors and firms, and planner Rachel Robasciotti, who urges public companies to improve gender equality in the workplace — say they support tougher standards for conduct.
“Conferences and organizations that don’t participate in these conversations will be left behind,” Dreizler says.
Robasciotti adds that, in the immediate aftermath of the disclosures at the Tiburon conference, other attendees at the male-dominated event would not look her or Dreizler in the eye. “We were just pariahs,” she says. “Until it hit enough of the public narrative, we were unsheltered.”
By contrast, the mood was strikingly different during Chalekian's visit the same day at LPL Financial, his broker-dealer. The morning after his tweet, Chalekian says, he flew to LPL’s Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters where people expressed nothing but support, he says.
Also advocating for a strong standard against sexual misconduct are XY Planning Network co-founders Michael Kitces and Alan Moore, as well as Moore’s wife Mary Moore, who recently spoke publicly for the first time about two incidents, including a sexual assault, she says she experienced at industry events. For three years, XY has had an anti-harassment policy for its annual conference, XYPN Live, that Kitces and Moore review with attendees at the opening of the conference. The executives say no one has lodged a complaint from the conference.
“Research shows it is hard for the victim to come forward,” says Mary Moore, who works at AdvicePay, an advisor billing service company founded by Kitces and Alan Moore. With the right policies, “We can take some of that burden off of people. By implementing a gold standard, we are saying, ‘Hey, everybody, we hear you. We see you.’ … And that’s how we are going to change.”
A good analog for the kind of body needed to forge such a consensus on policies might be the Committee for the Fiduciary Standard, Alan Moore says. It promotes a fiduciary oath that’s been embraced by many advisors and firms. XY requires all planners in its network to sign the oath.
“If a group wants to get together [to counter sexual harassment], we would love to be part of that conversation,” Alan Moore says, adding that such a body should include lawyers and academics specialized in workplace sexual misconduct.
Chalekian says he has informally run some of his ideas past TD Ameritrade and executives at his own broker-dealer, the nation’s largest. Chalekian sits on LPL’s 23-member Advisor Council.
While neither TD nor LPL would confirm they spoke with him about the issue, one of LPL’s executives, Rich Steinmeier, head of business development, expressed support for Chalekian and the risk he took.
“I think Alex was courageous in coming forward and reflecting what was happening in the room,” Steinmeier says. “We need more folks to act as Alex acted and to not accept that type of dialogue, not accept that that is commonplace or that is acceptable inside of our industry. … There’s more work to be done broadly” throughout the industry, he adds, “and certainly narrowly inside of those conferences and events.”
Dani Fava, TD Ameritrade Institutional’s director of innovation, tweeted out support for Chalekian: “Our society is at an inflection point and elevating awareness about what’s acceptable and what’s not is important. KEEP. DOING. THAT.”
Historically, Alan Moore says, the culture of financial services has been characterized by the lure of big-money generated through hard-driving sales.
By comparison, the culture at XY differs from much of the rest of the advisory industry, according to Kitces, given that he and Moore founded it with the aim of helping people, not selling on commission. The firm’s conference code of conduct also creates a different environment.
“We are so out there and vocal about [sexual harassment], if that is your behavioral style you probably don’t come to our conference,” he says. “I’m fine with that. That is probably the goal.”