Navigating advisor-client relationships in the #MeToo era
As a male financial planner, the #MeToo movement has sparked revealing, if painful, conversations for me.
Ours is a profession that depends upon clients sharing intimate details of their lives. Communicating respectfully across the male/female divide takes on special importance. As someone who has long been fascinated by replacing toxic cultures with healthy ones in the RIA workplace, I wanted to gain more insight into the topic.
I reached out to Sara Stanich, founder of Cultivating Wealth, a fee-only financial planning company in New York, to get her take on how to approach opposite-sex advisor-client relationships. I’ve known Sara for three years and that allowed us to engage in a lively, no-holds-barred exchange —one that’s challenged some of my ideas and opinions, especially on the subject of setting boundaries, and one which I’m still thinking about.
Grant: Should there be someone else present in the room if the meeting is between two members of the opposite sex?
Stanich: I think that question is preposterous. Do you think I've never been alone in a room with my doctor, my boss, my accountant, my financial advisor? Of course I can be alone in a room with a person I have hired, and not feel unsafe.
Grant: But can you understand where that question came from?
Stanich: That men are afraid that they're going to be accused of inappropriate behavior?
Grant: Well, yes. I think there's the other angle of a male advisor who's trying to be sensitive to a lot of issues here. It's, "I want to protect the other party in the meeting. I want to make sure there's a level of safety in that meeting where nothing questionable can happen”.
Stanich: The average office of a financial advisor is very heavy on male energy. For a female client, that can be off-putting, maybe a little intimidating. But that just shows we need to get more women in the industry, because a mix of male and female energy in an office environment is a good thing. But to suggest that a male-female interaction can’t happen behind closed doors strikes me as bizarre.
Grant: I would agree with you that it might be going to the extreme, but I think in more conservative parts of the country, some advisors wouldn’t find this idea abnormal. Which leads me to the next question … How are the boundaries of a male-female/advisor-client relationship established in this type of situation?
Stanich: I think that with practice, people become good at reading the other person and what's comfortable for them. When in doubt, let the woman lead.
Grant: I think that’s a wise statement. Let me describe a situation to you that happened recently. I recently went to lunch with a client whom I have worked with for a couple of years. This was our first social outing outside the office since we had started our professional relationship, so we had to establish our norms. She’s the CEO of a company and we have a lighthearted relationship. As she arrived for lunch, I stood up and outstretched my arms for a friendly hug, while she offered her hand for a handshake. She withdrew her hand and then embraced. But it had me questioning things — did she feel obliged to hug at this point? Did it make her feel uncomfortable? Was this outside of her comfort zone? Did she not want our relationship to advance to that level of physical interaction? Our lunch went well, but these feelings and thoughts lingered with me.
When in doubt, let the woman lead.
Stanich: Better to err on the side of caution — a handshake is always appropriate.
Grant: One thing I want to be aware of — and I am on the conservative side here —is would I be comfortable in my interactions with female clients if my wife were sat next to me.
Stanich: I guess I don’t think of it that way. The relationships we have with our clients, they can be very long, ongoing, friendly relationships. I mean, you know a lot of intimate details, the financial details of someone's lives. There's trust that's created. I get to know my clients very well. I've worked with women who are going through a divorce, or their husband died. People share their hopes and dreams and futures with us, but I want it to be, I want clients to know that they can trust me.
Grant: But where is the boundary? For example, are there conversations you DON’T have with opposite-sex clients? I’ve had a conversation where a female client started talking to me about her dating life and the boundary of professional/personal relationship started to blur.
Stanich: People have shared that kind of stuff with me too, obviously. They're just treating you like a friend. I mean, there have been times where I've been like, "So, whatever happened with that guy?" But, yeah. I've definitely had that conversation.
Grant: But what happens when it’s a member of the opposite-sex having that conversation with you? Are the conversations different?
Stanich: I think men are a lot more likely to get the wrong idea than women. I consciously dress very conservatively. I only meet between 9-5 and that’s it. It’s a professional relationship and I don't think anyone would get the wrong idea, but I would never want anyone to feel uncomfortable in any way."
Grant: So, I'm coming from that position as well. I never want somebody to get the wrong impression. I always want to make it feel safe, and I'm trying to err on the conservative side of, "I want to keep this boundary professional." So we agree!
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What if it's the [opposite-sex partner] who never wants to be involved in the meeting? For you, if it’s the man always initiating contact and wanting to have those meetings together, is there a point where you cut that off and say, "No. I need your wife here." If the wife was never been involved and you were meeting constantly with the husband, is that always going to be professionally okay? Or does the wife need to come in from a professional standpoint in keeping that relationship between them in sync, as well.
Stanich: If the client thinks, "Oh, well, she's not really that interested." I'm like, "Oh, you should include her.” It’s almost doing a service to the client, because they don't always know what's best. We can help steer them a little bit. But I mean, I do have male clients who have been like, "Oh, let me meet with you first," basically to make sure they want to hire me. I was like, "Okay. Let's have this conversation, but if we move forward, I'd really like to get to know you. I really want you both here, because that's how we can make our best recommendations." I mean, who's going to argue with that?
Grant: But I think to that point, that's almost a norm to us, but it might not be a norm to someone else. I do actually the same thing. If I'm talking to the man on the phone, I say, "Before we even sign a contract, I need to meet with you and your wife in a room and actually have a face-to-face conversation, so we're comfortable with each other." Whereas another advisor could be like, "Well, whatever. If your wife's involved, she's involved. If she's not, she's not." It'll be different if it's a female client initiating a male advisor relationship, and the male advisor not even inviting the husband in.
Stanich: But, I mean, would I put my foot down and say, "No, I'm not going to work with you unless you bring your wife to every meeting…?” I mean, people are busy and they don't always have time. I just think that when you learn to be a financial advisor — communication is just so important.
Three overall takeaways from my conversation to make sure the professional nature of opposite-sex advisor-client remains intact:
- More women: The advisor community is largely represented by male advisors. If we are to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in their advisor-client relationships, clients should be able to have a wide selection of advisors from both sexes. At this time, this isn’t available.
- Let “[opposite-sex] clients lead”: While Sara had mentioned this is the context of “letting female clients lead”, I believe it holds true that female advisors should let male clients lead as well. Some may be more comfortable in an opposite-sex professional relationship, while others may not. Try to understand your client’s relationship history and upbringing, and use this in determining the professional lines in your relationship. While less common, a female advisor can also initiate too much physical contact and make a male client uncomfortable.
- When in doubt, ask: The only way to feel more comfortable in our relationships is to communicate more openly and fully. If you’re not sure of something, just ask. I recently asked a female client if I could walk her to her car after an evening meeting. She accepted with a smile, but it would have been fine had she not. I wouldn’t have known either way without asking.