Money Blinders

On Competence, Success, and Excusing Bad Behavior

Photo: Pixabay

In my prior role as a litigation consultant, I spent a few years working on various recruiting teams to hire incoming analysts.  Our goal was to find smart candidates who were also a great fit for the firm’s culture.  By the time I was 25 I had interviewed over 250 applicants, nearly all of them undergraduates seeking their first job.

One of the biggest tensions I noticed regarding our firm’s recruiting philosophy was how much to value a candidate’s competence versus their cultural fit with the firm.  My least favorite interviews were the ones where I really enjoyed talking to the person, but they bombed the case portion.  It always sucked to say “No” to people who I probably would have loved to work with.  Regardless, these people (high fit, low skill) were easy to spot.  It was the opposite case (low fit, high skill) that were sometimes problems.

I particularly remember one candidate that came through the pipeline that everyone was raving about.  They had blown away their first round interviewers and I was scheduled to interview them during their final round interview day.  As expected, the guy delivered.  He seemed like an okay fit and he blew my case out of the water.  He asked intriguing questions and seemed genuinely interested in joining the firm as well.

Later that afternoon everyone who had interviewed him (along with those from the first round interviews) gathered in a conference room to discuss whether we wanted to give him an offer.  We went around the table and everyone said more or less the same thing.  This guy was phenomenal.  One of the partners said the candidate gave possibly the best case interview response that he had ever heard.

But then, the people who had gone to lunch with him earlier that afternoon had their turn to speak.  For context, on final round interview days, it is customary for two analysts to go to lunch with the candidate to see how they act in a social setting.  Well, this is where the trouble started.

We found out that during the course of the lunch, the candidate had made some questionable remarks about women.  Specifically he had asked about the “hunnies” at the firm and had treated the female wait staff at the restaurant with disrespect.  The female analyst who had gone to lunch with him looked scared when she delivered this feedback in the meeting.  As the lone voice in the room arguing against the candidate everyone loved, I could understand why.

After listening to her feedback, a short discussion ensued and the decision was made to deny an offer to the candidate.  We knew that some kinds of behavior were inexcusable at a professional services firm and this candidate had crossed the line.

While I was proud of my firm for making the right decision, I started to wonder whether this decision was merely a fluke.  Had two male analysts gone to lunch with the candidate, would they have noticed his unprofessionalism and comments about women?  Would they have overlooked these red flags because of his skill?  Would I have overlooked them?

I would like to think that most of my colleagues at my prior firm would have had similar reactions to this candidate’s comments, but I don’t truly know.  Without that one courageous female analyst’s feedback, we might have hired a closet misogynist simply because he was so talented.

But the problem of excusing bad behavior in favor of competence is widespread.  The sexual harassment scandal that damaged Uber’s corporate reputation concerned this very issue.  Their scandal occurred because Uber’s human resources department turned a blind eye to sexual harassment claims because the harasser was a “high performer.”  The New York Times found the same kind of excusing behavior when investigating the harassment claims against Bill O’Reilly, Mark Halperin, and Harvey Weinstein, all highly-skilled superstars in their respective fields.

But, the investment industry may have a bit of this problem too.  A recent video by Alex Chalekian, founder & CEO of Lake Avenue Financial, told a story about the “disgusting” behavior exhibited by Ken Fisher at a conference Chalekian had attended in Tiburon, California.  Fisher, who built one of the largest RIAs in the country, apparently made some crude, unprofessional remarks while giving a fireside chat.

I didn’t hear his remarks in Tiburon, so I cannot say anything about them, but Chip Roame, who hosted the Tiburon conference and fireside chat with Fisher, provided this detailed response to the incident.  In it Roame calls for more inclusion while also asking for help to fix this “industry issue.”

In response to the backlash surrounding his comments, Fisher told Bloomberg:

I have given a lot of talks, a lot of times, in a lot of places and said stuff like this and never gotten that type of response.

And I don’t think Fisher is lying.  Do you think anyone from his inner circle (or at a conference) ever informed him that some of his remarks could be considered offensive?  I doubt it.  Everyone around him had money blinders on.  After all, who dare tell the emperor that he has no clothes?

And I am not just trying to pick on Fisher either, because this is the same kind of issue that was present at Uber and elsewhere.  We overlook it though because offensive views and problematic behavior are often ignored if they come from someone who is highly skilled/talented.  We worship at the altar of success at our own detriment.  I have been guilty of this too and need to do better.

But money blinders, or success blinders, or whatever you want to call them can be found everywhere.  Did music fans abandon Kanye West after he stated that slavery for 400 years “sounds like a choice”?  Nope.  Money blinders.  What about Trump supporters after the “grab them by the *****” line?  No.  More money blinders.  And, trust me, I could go on.

Of course, no one should be judged on a single remark.  Everyone has done or said something foolish.  But when someone repeatedly acts inappropriately and most of the community turns the other cheek, that’s the problem.

One Offense Too Far?

There is a huge debate in our society as to whether discourse has gone too far when it comes to preventing people from being offended.  In our overly politically correct climate, any call against certain kinds of speech should be suspect.  But, I think there is a difference between free speech and professionalism.  Of course any speaker at a conference has the right to say whatever they want, but we need to be more mindful of the environment created by certain kinds of speech.

And to be clear, I have also been guilty of not calling out or condemning offensive comments before.  THIS WAS WRONG.  I didn’t consider how others, especially women, might feel when hearing these kinds of remarks.  I didn’t consider how much this would affect their perception of our community.  And how are we supposed to get more women and other minorities involved in the investment industry if this kind of unprofessional speech is not openly discouraged?

This isn’t about protecting people from being offended, but about making individuals realize that we still live in a society where social norms matter.  I don’t care if you are rich, famous, or even the President of the United States, you should act professional when in a professional setting.  If you are in the privacy of your own home, go ahead and say whatever you want.  But, when you’re in the spotlight, be mindful of others.  Because the money blinders are coming off and everyone is watching.

Thank you for reading!

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This is post 146. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering:

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8 Responses

  1. Anonymous commented on Oct 15

    This is a great post and I agree with most of the points. In my view, High skill/Low Profile employees are one of the reasons why workplaces have become more toxic in the last few years. In my working experience, I really noticed the shift after the GFC.

  2. Anonymous commented on Oct 15

    “Money, sex, those are the two most private things for most people,” so when trying to win new clients you need to be careful.

    He says: “It’s like going up to a girl in a bar … (inaudible) …going up to a woman in a bar and saying, hey I want to talk about what’s in your pants.”

    This is the only comment i could find online. I have tried to hear it said with various tones of voice, but i can find nothing here that is offensive. Men do hit on women in bars. Some are subtle, some are not. That is a real part of life, now and since the beginning of bars. Now, the bad behavior in bars is bad—but that is not what we are talking about here. We are condemning this man for describing what sometimes other people do!!

  3. Anonymous commented on Oct 15

    I agree strongly with Nick’s thesis. Two points:

    (1) “ in the privacy of your own home, go ahead and say whatever you want” – I suggest not. If we make an effort to be aware of blunders, we undermine that by condoning unpleasant comments in private. If a view is morally offensive I should not express it anywhere.

    (2) Conversely, some extreme neo-liberals protest at innocent inoffensive comments. We should not have to apologise for them if a reasonable, even if sensitive, listener would not object.

  4. Anonymous commented on Oct 15

    “Everyone around him had money blinders on. After all, who dare tell the emperor that he has no clothes?” That is exactly why we end up with celebrities, sports stars, CEOs and other rich and powerful people doing absurd stuff. No one in their inner circle wants to say to them “Um, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.”

  5. Anonymous commented on Oct 16

    This post in gold!

  6. Anonymous commented on Oct 16

    We still do not have an effective mechanism for telling the Emperor they have no clothes on. The Emperors often have a positional advantage over their domain and to blow the whistle can inflict too much damage to the team and others. Blowing the whistle can also embolden the Emperor to consolidate their power further and ruining the careers of good people. That is unfortunate. How can we achieve a better social mechanism to handle this?

  7. Anonymous commented on Oct 16

    (I thought I posted this yesterday, but I don’t see it, so I am resubmitting. I apologize if the original submission is still being reviewed. I don’t believe the comments are inappropriate or unfriendly, but if you think they are, please let me know why – not to fight, but so that I better understand your criteria. Thank you, Mark)

    I agree with the note, but challenge this – in today’s world, I doubt any man wouldn’t have immediately had their radar ping a loud “that’s inappropriate” at that lunch, with or without a woman present. 

    Hopefully, it’s because most men have come to understand how inappropriate that behavior is, but here’s the less nice thing to say, even if a man doesn’t truly believe it, he still knows it is unacceptable by today’s standards.
    I’ll go further, I don’t even think it took courage to speak up at that meeting as, for the last ten or more years, corporate America has been actively teaching us through seminars, meetings, video tutorials, etc., that we should absolutely speak up when we see or hear this type of behavior. To not mention it during the review of a potential hire would be malpractice.
    All the above is good and right. To summarize, you’d have to be brain dead not to have gotten the message – it’s been all but (rightfully) screamed at us for over a decade – and you’d be guilty of a massive corporate sin of omission not tell others. And I find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t be well received at any company that is synched to the present norms of corporate behavior. 

  8. Anonymous commented on Oct 16

    Good post and well said. But I hope you return to your better topics that you excel at vs more like this. There’s plenty of places to get this but the Nicky numbers stuff is why I’m here.

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