Am I blowing a friendly interaction out of proportion or is Mr. Falmon flirting with me?" a young planner asked me at a recent performance-review lunch. "If he's flirting with me, it's creeping me out and I'm not sure what to do."
Helping young colleagues develop a professional demeanor and manage interactions with clients is as important as helping them understand hedging strategies for a portfolio or developing conflict-negotiation skills for touchy family dynamics. Discussing how to dress and setting socializing rules are just a few of the ways you can make sure everyone in your practice is involved in an ongoing dialogue on ethical issues.
The flirting question is like peeling an onion. How does your role as a trusted advisor change what would be ordinary manners for you? Perhaps you enjoy or tolerate clients who flirt, but is it okay for a colleague, mentor or referral source to flirt with you? How does a firm develop a culture that makes it simple for a team member to navigate all of these potential potholes on the path to success?
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Society values attractive, well-groomed, personable people. At Abacus, we signal loud and clear that we expect team members to make a great first impression. We also expect a professional image at all times. We take this so seriously that we budget to send team members to a professional image consultant for a wardrobe, makeup and hairstyle review. While we encourage authenticity in personal style, we want each team member to have the opportunity to understand the dress-for-success rules of the 21st century.
Our image consultant, Bryan Manor, starts with the basics for women-save the high heels, open-toed shoes, short hemlines and low-cut shirts for weekend wear. For young men, Manor might recommend a more mature hairstyle or suggest regularly polishing shoes. The magic "before" and "after," when we see the results of Manor's makeovers, is fun for the entire firm.
Many male colleagues have confessed that they avoid conversations about appropriate dress with female employees. My recommendation is to approach this conversation as you would any other career development issue. Your goal is to help her create the career she has designed for herself.
Be specific in your feedback. Say that the skirt you wore on Wednesday was too short for an office environment, or the blouse you wore on Friday was more suitable for evening events.
Share why dress is important. You might say, "I worry that you will not be taken seriously by our clients over 40," or "My concern is that the older men in this office may not seek your advice." Listen to her perspective and establish whether she understands and agrees with your concern. Brainstorm options with her and set a time to revisit the issue, if only to say, "Good work."
Our goal is for clients to have a safe place to discuss all issues that might affect their financial goals. We are passionate about listening and fully understanding what each client is sharing with us. With this 100% focus on the most important client issues, flirting is a distraction.
Flirting helps us all feel attractive. But a mutual "you're attractive" pat on the back can interfere with a candid relationship. Both male and female clients may be less likely to bring up health, family or debt issues if they think these problems will make them less attractive to you. As a planner, you may be less comfortable talking about the hard issues if you feel the client needs to think you find him or her attractive. Remember that laughter, curiosity, engagement and empathy are not the same as flirting.
When you feel a client is flirting with you and you aren't flirting back, I'd suggest saying, "I could be wrong, but it feels as if sometimes our relationship becomes flirtatious." About 99% of the time the client will be surprised and begin behaving differently. You could also say, "Our conversation felt more stilted today. Did you notice that?" In my experience, clients welcome the chance to clarify communication. We expect our planners to address the issue with the client, but not to tolerate discomfort. Abacus would not hesitate to end the relationship with a client who was behaving inappropriately.
THE LEGAL ISSUES
Abacus invites its employment attorney, David Dubberly, to joins us at a staff meeting once a year. Dubberly reminds us to be thoughtful, respectful citizens of the firm. Through simple stories and examples, he leads us to think about how our behavior affects one another.
I had a huge aha moment after our first training session. After a long day on the road, I was in the hotel elevator with two young male colleagues, and an ironic joke about role reversal and hitting the bar for a drink popped into my brain. Because of the training with Dubberly, the thought immediately, and fortunately, surfaced that I might think the joke was funny at the age of 50, but which 25-year-old male wants his female boss making lewd jokes in a hotel? The tone is always set at the top. My rule is simple: Don't say anything to or in front of a colleague that you wouldn't say to your mother. My mother is a southern Baptist librarian, so the rule works for me.
Abacus is not immune from gender, racial, sexual orientation, religious preference or other "difference" challenges. The first goal of our training is to help all team members think about their own words and actions. The second goal is to help us all feel confident we can address any difficult situation .
SET SOCIALIZING RULES
Recently I had a conversation with a colleague who was curious about our rules on socializing with clients. Her firm is growing, and she was debating how much socializing with clients was a good idea for her. The range of choices among my peers differs as broadly as their investment styles. I have colleagues who vacation with clients and some who forbid any interaction outside of the office.
As a firm grows from three employees to 50, it's easy to forget to establish formal standards. Each firm will create its own standards, but it's important to communicate them clearly to team members, especially new ones, so that misunderstandings do not arise.
At Abacus, attending a client's baby shower is fine, but weekend trips to share a beach house are not. Other than in "circle of life" events such as weddings and anniversaries, we politely decline invitations unless they are approved by a shareholder in the firm.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
As CFPs, our training requires us to disclose any conflicts of interests to clients. Should Abacus refer a client to another client for services? You might then run into a conflict of interest if their relationship doesn't work out. Should Abacus hire a child of a client? Can a team member buy a house or used car from a client? What if the sale runs into difficulties? Our rule is that we want to avoid social interactions that could create potential conflicts, and we explain this to clients when we refuse invitations.
At the core of all these questions is the need for a firm to create a process for preventing and resolving conflicts of interest. The process ideally includes many chances to talk the issue over with other staff members. If your firm creates an ongoing dialogue on ethical issues, the whole team stretches and grows.
Younger team members may have different standards than older ones do. The workplace is generally much more comfortable for individuals of all backgrounds when a younger generation questions accepted norms. While we are mentoring, we expand our own professional awareness.
In the end, the young planner who told me she felt "creeped out" by her client decided he wasn't flirting. He was a big jokester and treated everyone in the same manner. Once she realized this, she could laugh along with the rest of us. FP
Cheryl R. Holland is a financial planner and shareholder at Abacus Planning Group in Columbus, S.C.
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