A “Water-Shed” Moment for the Financial-Services Industry

Author: Barbara Palmer       

The Purple Campaign, founded by Ally Coll (left), focuses on helping organizations create better workplace policies.

Last October, when an attendee posted a video on Twitter showing lewd remarks made by a speaker during a session at a financial services industry conference in San Francisco, it was the Twitter poster who technically violated the conference rules — not the speaker. The invitation-only Tiburon CEO Summit has a policy that bars sharing speaker remarks without their permission.

Nonetheless, Charles “Chip” Roame, Tiburon’s managing partner, responded by barring the speaker, billionaire Ken Fisher, from attending future events organized by the company. And in a statement, he commended the Twitter poster, Alex Chalekian, CEO of Lake Avenue Financial, for speaking out. Fisher’s remarks, Roame wrote, were “unacceptable” not only at the conference, “but in the wealth and investments industry, and in society generally.”

The incident, and Roame’s response to it, created not only headlines for days but also what some conference participants called a “watershed moment” for financial-services industry events. “This should be a turning point to bring awareness to the reality that it does happen and should not be tolerated at any level, on or off the record,” Amy Webber, CEO of Cambridge Investments, wrote in a statement. “Not only should there be a professional code of conduct and a culture of inclusion at all industry events, those policies have to be enforced and honored.”

Helping to turn moments of professional and cultural reckoning into policy is the mission of the Washington, D.C.– based nonprofit The Purple Campaign, founded by Ally Coll. Coll, a former Capitol Hill consultant and Harvard-trained lawyer, quit her job with a New York City law firm representing Harvey Weinstein, whose alleged assaults on women ignited the #MeToo movement.

Coll’s focus now is on helping organizations create workplace policies — including policies covering what happens at events. “I’m seeing a huge trend toward organizations acknowledging and training people on the fact that harassment can occur outside of the physical office,” Coll told Convene. “We are seeing a lot of companies take steps to incorporate that more formally into their policies and also to train people on that. Our general advice is that people should behave as though they’re at work whenever they’re with somebody from work. If you’re with colleagues at a conference or at an event, that’s really no different than if you’re with colleagues in the office, because your behavior affects each other in a very similar way.”

Coll said she advises organizations to think about sexual harassment issues in three stages: prevent, respond, and rethink.

› Prevent — There is a trend toward greater transparency, Coll said, and in providing clear guidelines about behavior in official codes of conduct and taking steps to make sure that the policies are communicated to participants.

There are different ways to accomplish that, she said. Some organizations include their code of conduct in their printed and digital conference materials as part of their registration page, and/or ask participants to verify that they have read it by checking a box. Others, including the labor organization AFL-CIO, have made sure that event attendees are familiar with the code of conduct, Coll said, by reading it aloud from the stage at the beginning of each day.

› Respond — In addition to communicating non-acceptable behavior to participants, it’s important that organizations decide how they will respond. Organizations should plan exactly who will determine what to do about incidents that are reported. The plan would spell out in which situations attendees would be asked to leave an event, Coll said, “and who is going to have that difficult conversation.”

Coll advises that the responsibility not fall on any one person’s shoulders. “Our recommendation is to designate three people, in order to create checks and balances,” she said, and that the group be diverse in gender, gender identity, and race. That not only will help guarantee a variety of perspectives but help build trust in the process. “People trust people more when they see themselves reflected in leadership,” she said, “and that will encourage the reporting of incidents.”

Organizations should think in broader terms than sexual harassment when creating codes of conduct, Coll said. The code should address what to do if someone experiences another form of harassment or discrimination as well. The same kind of protocols can apply to how event organizers handle those when they come up.

› Rethink — “What we’re really talking about here is zooming out a little bit from the specifics of when the harassment occurs and looking more at the question of how do you address diversity and inclusion more broadly as a part of the solution to this problem,” Coll said. “The research shows that homogeneous workplaces are more vulnerable to having a harassment problem.”

In the event context, rethinking means questioning “how event and conference organizers can diversify the speakers — and diversify the people who are responsible for putting on the programming — to create less risk that there are going to be inappropriate comments made on a panel,” Coll said, “or generally inappropriate behavior happening at a conference.”

Fisher’s comments at the Tiburon CEO Summit created a wave of soul searching, not just about instances of harassment at financial industry events, but the problem of inequity in the financial services industry. The number of women in senior-level management positions in the industry has remained at under 30 percent for more than a decade, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“When you have a set of speakers and people organizing [events] in an industry that really isn’t very diverse, I’m not really surprised that that’s the context in which you see problems occurring,” Coll said. “I think that events that have greater diversity in their planning committees and in people who speak are generally going to have event spaces where you have fewer problems like that.”

Coll said that “it goes beyond ‘who’s speaking at the conference?’ to ‘who’s the face of this event?’ The more that you can create diversity, especially in terms of gender diversity, but also in terms of racial diversity and making sure that you have people of various gender identities and sexual orientation, religion, disability status — all of these categories represented — I think that that can go a long way to prevent problems.”

Learn more about The Purple Campaign at purplecampaign.org.