From strip clubs to massages: When clients are sexually inappropriate

It’s tough enough to grapple with sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s more complex when clients are involved.

She was 25 years old and a month into a new job at a bank when she was invited to attend a client event with senior colleagues. Drinks, dinner ― the evening was going well when someone suggested the group go for a nightcap. The destination? A strip club.

“I would liken it to watching pornography with your parents,” said the woman, who was one of only two women in the group of about 20. (She asked that her real name not be used in this story.)

Unlike her co-workers and clients, she was the only one who appeared uncomfortable with the situation, the woman said.

“I went to a bathroom, I called my best friend and said, 'What do I do? If I leave, the message it'll send is I'm not part of the team,' " she said. "And there were clients. Obviously this is where the real deals get done, not in the conference room."

She later told her manager she did not think it was appropriate to visit a strip club with clients. The supervisor responded that he didn't see anything amiss, and she later faced retaliation, such as being excluded from attending conferences, she said. She left the bank and today is a financial planner with an independent practice.

Her dilemma is one that employees in wealth management face all too often: What to do when inappropriate situations with clients arise?

Also in this series:
• Sexual harassment in the professional workplace: Behind the research
• 10 key findings: Sexual harassment in the professional workplace
• Wealth management fares the worst in broad study of sexual harassment
• Banks wrestle with sense of futility on sexual harassment
• Does Silicon Valley's 'bro culture' pervade IT elsewhere?
• Sexual harassment is a bigger problem than accountants think
• HR’s culture shift: Tackling workplace sexual harassment while navigating legal definitions
• A #MeToo backlash is brewing in banking

Unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace is more prevalent in wealth management than in other industries, according to a recent SourceMedia survey of more than 3,000 individuals from a range of industries, including healthcare, accounting and banking.

One third of women in wealth management said they believe there is a high prevalence of sexual harassment in their industry, according to the survey. Harassment was defined in the survey as unwelcome behavior that ranged from inappropriate personal questions to threats of retaliation for not complying with sexual requests.

In interviews, male and female advisors said such behavior is not all coming from colleagues — sometimes clients are at fault. Some said they’ve experienced inappropriate questions and advances from clients, and some witnessed questionable behavior in their co-workers' advisor-client relationships. (Most of the advisors interviewed for this story requested anonymity.)

An independent advisor of more than 20 years said she has had a few clients make unwelcome advances. In a meeting with two prospective clients, a husband and wife, the man commented on her looks.

The advisor recalls the man saying, "Oh I bet you and your husband have a good time together."

His wife was still in the room.

"I made a mental note that this is not someone I'd want as a client because who knows where this might go and what he might try. He might be that way with everybody, but I did not want to find out," the advisor said.

Another male client, who was going through a divorce, repeatedly said he owed the advisor a massage ― an offer she rebuffed. The advisor also decided not to keep him as a client.

While cutting a client loose is an effective way to head off future unwelcome encounters, it's not always a viable option for young advisors trying to build a roster of clients. Wealth management is something of an eat-what-you-kill industry, advisors pointed out.

And clients can come with their own biases. Women often have to overcome traditional expectations of what a financial advisor looks like: older, white and male. It's an image that is often reinforced in advertising by wealth management firms, female advisors said.

"I've heard that clients prefer to work with a man; I've heard that many, many times," an ex-Smith Barney advisor said.

Early in her career, when she and a male colleague would meet with prospective male clients, the clients often assumed she was the colleague's secretary, she said.

A former Merrill Lynch advisor said that on numerous occasions she's been subjected to "mansplaining" by male clients at meetings who repeated what she'd just said to everyone else present.

List: sexual harassment story links as of March 28, 2018Of course, inappropriate client behavior is not a problem unique to wealth management. Other client-facing professionals also report being placed in uncomfortable situations, particularly in meetings held outside the office.

A woman working at a professional services company said that after-work dinners with clients are common in her line of work. Clients and colleagues can mistake the relaxed atmosphere at those meetings for an excuse to pursue behavior they wouldn't in other circumstances, she said. It's "still inappropriate regardless of whether it is from 9 to 5 or afterward," she said.

And Corey Krusa, the personnel director at Amarillo National Bank in Texas, said her bank fired a customer who persisted in bothering a branch employee with repeated visits and calls, even after being asked to use a different branch instead.

Men also have been on the receiving end of inappropriate requests. In the survey, 6% of men in wealth management said they’ve been subject to unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace.

Joel Seaton ― who gave permission to use his name ― said he’s seen colleagues date clients, and added that he has not dated women who have blurred the line between seeing him as a financial advisor and as a potential romantic partner.

"There were plenty [of female clients] I would have liked to have dated," Seaton said. But, "when you are in that dynamic I just think it's not appropriate."

He said he hasn't dated any colleagues either, though he understands why it happens. He knows eight married couples, all of whom are advisors and met their spouses on the job.

"If you are working 10 to 12 hours a day, where do you meet people?" he asked. "I think the only time it becomes a tenuous situation is when somebody has authority over a person and compels a person to have to date — and that's bad."

Have you experienced or seen inappropriate conduct from clients or colleagues in the workplace? Do you have an opinion on how the industry handles such matters? Please tell us in the comment section below.

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