On Competence, Success, and Excusing Bad Behavior
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!
This is post 146. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data