Financial advice: industry or profession?
By CAROLINE STUART
The coronavirus crisis has really given people the opportunity to take stock, review the way they do things and look for improvements. I don’t know if the two are related but recently I’ve also noticed an increasing number of people from all areas of the financial services sector, voice their views on where we are as a profession.
I use that word quite deliberately. We may have started as an ‘industry’, but I firmly believe that over the years, we have developed into a profession:
Any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education.
I know there are many who won’t feel the same way as me on this. I’ve spoken to people who want us to be viewed as a profession but feel we have a long way to go before we get there. Some believe we remain an industry because the deeds and attitudes of others fall so far below the behaviours and ethics expected from a member of a respected profession that we could never be viewed as anything else. There are others who have been doing this for such a long time, that being part of an industry is simply in their DNA; they don’t see it as an issue and are perfectly content with that.
So why is the question of industry or profession even an issue? It boils down to perception. I recently wrote a piece asking how are we seen by our clients, the general public, our peers and people considering financial services, planning and advice as a career? I won’t repeat the whole article here, but many people, myself included, feel that we need to take stock and really look at where we are as a sector to decide where we want to go next. If you fancy a read of it though, here’s the link.
It feels that we have a lot of work to do before we become a “trusted profession”.
Our clients and the general public
I have no doubt that on a one-to-one basis, clients trust their planners and advisers; if they didn't, they would vote with their feet. However, I would suggest the view of the public at large is quite different to this.
There have been scandals, which although perpetuated by a rogue minority, tarnish the whole profession; and a rise in consumers being caught by scams and frauds is making people very mistrustful of any financial services and advisers.
A united profession?
But we can all work together to help tackle these scandals and scams, can’t we? You really would like to think so, wouldn’t you?
Sadly, it’s not as simple as that. We are not a united profession, industry or whatever you choose to call us. We can barely go a week without some kind of spat starting on social media; whether it’s charges, fees, fund types or servicing proposition, it’s always the perennial "no, my way is better than your way, so you’re wrong" type of disputes we’re so used to seeing.
Then there’s the comments sections of our trade and professional publications. Some of the things I’ve seen in the comments over the last few years are, and there’s really no other word for it, shocking.
A few weeks ago, there was a story on which people started to express their views. What started out as reasoned and sensible conversations soon deteriorated into derogatory, patronising, personally insulting statements, bordering on aggressive superiority by some of the commenters. What was the common factor behind them all? They were being made anonymously.
My question to these people – if you were using your own name, would you have commented in this way? If you were speaking to this person face to face, would you still have used the language and tone you did to express your view? I don’t suppose we will ever know for the same reason they are able to feel so free to make those sort of statements in the first place, they hide behind the protection of anonymity.
We of course need debate; constructively challenging the status quo is how we will develop, it’s how we learn from one another and improve ourselves and outcomes for our clients. However, when it descends into aggressive personal attacks, including casual everyday sexism and derogatory remarks as these ones did, let’s call it what it is. Bullying.
When challenged on their behaviour, the go-to responses are ‘snowflake’, or ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘PC brigade’. However, wanting someone to communicate with you with respect does not mean you are infringing on their freedom of speech nor does it make you a snowflake; it is a basic expectation from a professional peer.
When you become part of a professional body, you sign up to a Code of Conduct — the standard of behaviour expected of everyone wanting to be a member. The Personal Finance Society has a Code of Ethics, one of which is:
Act with the highest ethical standards and integrity.
This includes, but is not limited to: being honest and trustworthy, and being reliable, dependable and respectful.
Taking positive action
One of our professional publications has now taken the decision to only allow people using their real names to comment for the first time and to have a lower tolerance threshold for excessively negative comments made anonymously.
I for one applaud this decision and it has been supported by many. However, as with all things, not everyone agrees and the question if this will reduce people’s willingness to contribute has been raised. However, if someone has a valid, reasonable or constructive comment to make, why do they need to hide behind a pseudonym?
In my experience, the thing that is stifling debate the most isn’t not being able to comment anonymously, it’s not feeling you can comment at all.
I know of many voices who are too reluctant to speak out because of the potential repercussions they will get from it. I recently read a blog by a female adviser asking how we attract a more diverse range of people to financial services. It was well articulated, made some excellent points and had well reasoned and evidenced examples. What was the problem with it? Absolutely nothing, other than because she was worried of the backlash from some of the points raised, the author felt only able to publish her article in a ‘safe environment’.
I think it’s fantastic that she took the time and effort to put the blog together, you could feel how powerfully she felt about what she was saying. So why is it she felt she could only express these views in the environment she did?
I'm afraid, this is where we are at. People who have important and salient ideas to put across that could help our profession develop and improve are too afraid to express them for fear of derision, personal attack or aggressive, confrontational responses.
People end up expressing their views in safe environments, which is a fantastic start, but if their views remain in these echo chambers, then nothing will ever change.
Going back to her article, she was asking how can we attract a more diverse range of people to our profession? Something many have been asking for a long time. One of her key questions was “how do you feel about the typical adviser stereotype?”.
She commented how she is frequently asked “how do you feel about being a woman in the industry”, but very interestingly she wondered what would be the answer if we turn that question around and asked an adviser in that stereotypical bracket “how do you feel when you are painted as the typical adviser stereotype we need to change?”
I will readily admit, this is something I have never considered but it’s a really valid point. I know many excellent advisers and planners who fall into that ‘typical’ demographic and it’s worth remembering we would not be where we are as either an industry or profession today without these people. I have learnt many things from some of these ‘typicals’ for which I am very grateful because it means I am doing a job I love because of their help and advice in the past.
However, we do need to expand our horizons, and many advisers and planners in that demographic, not only know this, they agree and want things to change too. We need to become more forward looking to attract all demographics to the profession for it to develop and grow.
To do that, we need to be more open, transparent and welcoming; we all need to be able to express views, positively challenge each other and be able to have debate without it ending up in some sort of battle.
Just because someone’s business model differs from your own, does not mean you are right and they are wrong, it’s just different. If you and they are looking after clients well, clients are happy and being treated fairly, why is there an issue? If you feel that there is a genuine problem where clients are being disadvantaged or suffering detriment from the way something is being done, then positively challenge it, back it up with evidence rather than opinion. Alternatively, if someone is doing something differently but are still meeting all those points, then there is probably much that we can learn from each other.
The squabbling and sniping on social media and open forums has to stop; we need to accept that there will always be differences in the way we all work and the services we provide to clients. If we find we disagree, we have to be able to discuss, challenge and debate these appropriately as professionals.
Arguments and excessively negative comments in open forums are not doing us any favours. They are there for all clients, peers and the public to see, so it is hardly surprising if we are not viewed as a trusted profession and our own people are not comfortable expressing an opinion. If you were a client or a potential recruit, and you saw this would you feel impressed by our behaviour or shocked? Would you be happy to approach us for advice or join us as a career, or would you walk away? If you were a member of our profession, would this make you comfortable and confident to express a new or different point of view?
Time for a change
If we want to help consumers to get better outcomes and protect them from scams and to attract more people to join our profession, we need to get our house in order.
As I have said, I’ve noticed more and more people saying that enough is enough. We have a real opportunity now to galvanise all these voices, gain momentum and start to make a real change, because if not now, then when?
We need to find a way to harness this, help others to know they can speak out. If we all work together with our professional bodies and all the other fantastic initiatives, groups and organisations that we have working to drive up standards and professionalism, I really believe we can make a difference for our clients, the public and our profession. Let’s use our voices - if we see poor behaviours, disrespectful communications or bullying, let’s call it out for what it is.
This is our profession, one I am hugely proud to be part of and I am prepared to stand up and say so. If you want change too, I ask you all, are you happy to stand with me?
CAROLINE STUART is Vice President of the Personal Finance Society, and business owner of Sparrow Paraplanning.
This article was first published on Caroline's LinkedIn blog and is republished here with permission.