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How small financial advisories can prevent sexual harassment

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The dominoes keep falling — allegations of sexual harassment are rampant. Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey have been accused of horrible actions. Politicians are fair game, too, but have mostly been able to keep a lock on their jobs, with the exception of John Conyers and Al Franken. Who is next?

The wounds are open, and it’s time to start healing. Before we can do that, though, we have to wonder why we haven’t seen more reports out of the wealth management industry recently. In part, I believe it’s because our male-heavy finance culture went through a slew of sexual harassment cases in the '90s, including the egregious “boom boom room” case at Smith Barney.
These cases heightened awareness on the subject. Yet the recent firing of two long-term, male, high-ranking employees at Fidelity Investments offers yet another example proving 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 a problem in smaller advisory firms? Of course it is, but there are differences between large and small firms.

First, victims 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, culture is pervasive, and 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 recently heard from a woman who was invited to join a totally male firm because they wanted to be more inclusive. She quickly learned just how insensitive the men in the firm were about this issue.

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 gave in. Our jobs are important to us, and we can’t afford to lose them.

Accepting the status quo sometimes was the only choice. Being in the one-down situation made it tough for us to fight back as a group. What we lack in the workplace is setting a tone that makes sexual harassment less likely. Sadly, many men don’t even realize it is 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 they need to be held accountable, will it 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.

Is penalizing the perpetrators of sexual harassment the way forward? I’m afraid if this is the only action taken, we all will lose.

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 and 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 people not following the culture.

Like it or not, we are all sexual beings. Sexual behavior outside society’s view on what is 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 hiring sex workers are examples we frequently see in people who may otherwise have what we think is an incredible life.

Is this a problem in smaller advisory firms? Of course it is, but there are differences between large and small firms.

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 openly discuss 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 to 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. Making “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott required reading or offering sensitivity training (I recommend Fierce, Inc. training) can build the cornerstone for healthy workplace communication. It will also provide employees with the skills they need to handle workplace romance, harassment or abuse.

A workplace is like family and all families have some dysfunction. By addressing our dysfunctions openly through empathy, healthy communication and a desire to create a great life for all involved, we can create healthier and happier families and workplaces. Add a change in the balance of corporate power, and we will be well on our way to healing and create a better future for all of us.

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