4 ways to help rid wealth management of sexual harassment

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Sexual harassment isn’t primarily about attraction — it’s about power. Give more power to women, the reasoning goes, and sexual harassment gradually dies out.

Unfortunately, this logic isn’t borne out in the real world. Just look at Fidelity.

The Boston-based financial firm is led by several visionary and principled women, including its CEO Abigail Johnson and Kathleen Murphy, president of Fidelity Personal Investing, a unit with more than 12 million customer accounts and $1 trillion in assets. Both women are included among Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women.

But even with strong female leadership, Fidelity found itself in the throes of a sexual harassment scandal, adding to the long list of similar headlines since the September 2017 revelations surrounding Harvey Weinstein and his pattern of harassing and victimizing women. In October, two senior male executives at Fidelity departed the firm for making inappropriate comments amid what some describe as a broader culture of sexual discrimination and bullying.

Fidelity certainly isn’t alone. Allegations of sexual harassment and even class-action lawsuits have plagued long-respected Wall Street firms such as Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch over the last few decades. But the Fidelity controversy could hit even closer to home for independent financial planners and advisors, since the firm is a major provider of clearing, custodial and other services for independent financial advisors.

Fidelity says it has taken a number of steps to foster a respectful work environment, including creating a sexual harassment response committee. "As our CEO, Abby Johnson, has made clear, when allegations of harassment or other inappropriate behavior are brought to our attention, we investigate them immediately and take prompt and appropriate action," says Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio in an emailed statement.

Harassment and outraged responses to it are not new, of course. As a young woman in the 1980s, I was advised by a male friend that I would not be successful in the financial industry because of my gender, as I related in my book “Wealthy by Design.” I wish that had been the worst thing that had happened. But it wasn’t.

Fresh from college and laser-focused on working for one of the largest firms in the industry, I remember the frantic feeling of studying for my securities licensing exams while at the same time running the gauntlet of simulations, training sessions and other exercises that were — and in most cases, still are — part of the onboarding experience for financial consultants.

But not long after I arrived at his palatial residence, he began to try to kiss me … and worse.

After interviewing with about seven other houses, I had staked everything on going to work for Merrill Lynch. In the midst of this frantic, anxious time, I felt grateful when a regional manager offered to help me prepare for my exams. But not long after I arrived at his palatial residence (a red flag I ignored because of my naiveté) he began to try to kiss me … and worse. When I refused his advances and told him to call me a cab, he assured me that if I left, I would never work for his firm. I took a deep breath and told him that I would rather be out of a job and still have my personal integrity intact. And then, thankfully, I was able to get in the cab and leave.

Merrill Lynch declined to comment.

Years of similar incidents, many of which ended much worse than my own story, have forced major firms to establish guidelines, protocols, hotlines and no-tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment and misconduct. And yet, even after all these years, the problem is still rampant.

In June 2017, for example, a former Morgan Stanley advisor at a branch in southern California sued her ex-employer, alleging that she was terminated for complaining about sexual harassment that included a manager requesting her to send him sexually explicit photographs of herself. Similarly, a young associate of mine who previously worked at another large firm told me recently that the culture is still uncomfortably similar to what I experienced, all those years ago.

Here are four concrete steps independents can take to help change the culture:

  • Opening up the top ranks of management to women will ultimately advance the campaign for a harassment-free workplace. As the current problems at Fidelity suggest, this is certainly not a cure-all, but there is a lot of room for improvement. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study indicates that women have made little or no progress toward increasing their presence in the industry since 2007.
The empowerment that comes with running your own shop can provide a wall of protection from those who would unfairly use superior positions as leverage.

From personal experience, I can tell you that the independence and empowerment that comes with running your own shop can provide a wall of protection from those who would unfairly use superior positions as leverage.

  • The independent financial planning industry must continue to press for zero tolerance of sexual misconduct of any type. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and gender bias is not limited to specific firms or workplaces; advisor conferences can become hubs of unwanted comments, attitudes and activity.

“I would walk through exhibit halls as a planner and I would be asked whose assistant I am. Why did [they] assume that?” asked Breanna Reish, an experienced planner who recently launched her own firm, according to a recent news report.

The 2017 Dallas conference of the XY Planning Network, a group of fee-only advisors who specialize in Gen X and Gen Y clientele, opened with the announcement of a code of conduct that prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment.

“Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks, workshops, parties, Twitter or other online media,” the code read. The app for the conference even included a function that facilitated the reporting of inappropriate conduct.

Also, in an attempt to address gender imbalances in the financial industry, XYPN offered a networking track focused on women advisors. The planning group has formed its own diversity committee, dedicated to focusing time and energy on helping member advisors promote diversity in their firms and practices.

Such initiatives constitute an important beginning, but they need to continue, and other firms need to join the growing movement.

  • We should embrace the same adage recently popularized by the British Transport Police in their campaign against terrorism: “See it. Say it. Sorted.” The Harvey Weinsteins of the world cannot systematically victimize unless bystanders look the other way. Instead, we need to stare sexual harassment in the face and call it what it is. Just as mildew can’t spread if exposed to sunlight, sexual harassment can’t survive in the glare of public knowledge and opposition. If you see something, say something.
  • Finally, we must listen to and believe in the voices of women and others who have been silenced for too long. It is excruciatingly difficult to speak truth to power — especially when the speaker has suffered the abuse of that same power. We need to take up the cause of those who have been wronged. When they talk, we need to listen. And then, we need to take action.
Independent advisors have been leading the way in providing reasonably priced services with a commitment to the client’s interests above all.

For years, independent financial advisors have been leading the way in providing reasonably priced services with a commitment to the client’s interests above all. It is time now for us to lead the charge to eradicate sexual harassment and gender discrimination from the financial industry.

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Gender issues Gender discrimination Sexual harassment Law and regulation Corporate governance Portfolio diversity Practice structure Practice management Employee relations