Ask the Ethicist

Dan Candura answers readers’ questions on the ethical dilemmas financial advisers face.

Trading insults with a bully rarely works

A lesson in responding to a heckler while participating in an industry panel

Mar 20, 2016 @ 12:01 am

By Dan Candura

This month's question comes from an adviser who got heckled.

QRecently, I was a panelist at a conference in Detroit along with three other advisers. The topic was “The Best Approach to Investing.” The subject generated great interest and the room was filled.

I'm very much a disciple of John Bogle and encourage my clients to establish diversified portfolios by asset class and fund them using low-cost index funds and ETFs. For me, costs matter — especially long term. Another panel member shared my conservative views regarding diversification, but felt that asset allocation and target date funds were the best method, as it relieved the investor of any rebalancing chores.

The third panelist advocated a “green” approach and favored sustainable investments in socially responsible ways. Her argument was that economic principles over the long term should favor those companies that benefit the environment, enhance social justice or demonstrate principle-based corporate governance.

The last panelist argued that investment success resulted from selecting superlative managers willing to take concentrated positions based on tactical assessments of anticipated sector and regional performance. To say that our positions varied widely is an understatement. It promised to be an interesting discussion.

GETTING PHYSICAL

In fact, it was interesting ... but not the way I expected. Problems began as soon as I started my presentation. As I spoke, the active management proponent started making physical gestures indicating that he disagreed with me — shaking his head from side to side, wagging his finger, looking skyward while making a face, smirking and mouthing “wrong” silently. I tried to ignore it, but then he started interrupting me.

As I outlined the reasons for my approach, he challenged me to demonstrate any time when my approach “beat the market.” I answered that of course there aren't any, since index funds track the market less the modest management fees. I explained that I was content to just “get the market” without paying too much. He called me a “loser” and added that getting the market was like “kissing your sister.” The active management proponents in the audience applauded wildly.

He told everyone that my approach was flat out the worst idea ever and a “huuuge” mistake. He said I wasn't adding any “alpha” and real men create alpha. I tried to ignore him and just continue with the presentation, but I admit that I had a hard time concentrating with his antics at the other end of the podium. I was just glad when I got to turn the microphone over to someone else.

PERSONAL SLIGHTS

The other panelists suffered similar fates — frequent interruptions, lots of head shaking. He even commented on the small stature of the socially conscious expert, saying her investment returns would be as short as she was. He told the audience that there was nothing small about him and that he guaranteed “huuuge” returns. When one of the other panelists challenged him to describe how he would accomplish this, he said, “I will do it, believe me I will do it. I have a plan and that plan will produce more than any of your puny results.” I wanted to speak up and ask for clarification, but I was still quite intimidated. I meekly asked, “How? How are you going to do it?” He told me to shut up and stop using up his time. People in the audience laughed as my face reddened. I was afraid to confront him again and wish I never agreed to speak at the conference.

So, my question is this: How should I have dealt with this situation in an ethical way?

AWe are all accountable for our own behavior. The boorish and immature behavior of your fellow panelist does not reflect upon you, nor does it require you to deal with the situation. That function could have been performed by a moderator. Either there wasn't one present or they failed to do their job. You prepared your presentation and attempted to share information that at least some of the audience wanted to hear. If you cannot do that in an effective way due to the inappropriate actions of another, then the blame lies outside of you.

TREAT OTHERS FAIRLY

Acting ethically means treating others fairly. Most of the time, this is in the same manner we would want to be treated. While it can be tempting to confront a bully by trading insults, it rarely works and doesn't move the conversation toward a positive result. It merely escalates the tension and compounds the issue.

A simpler approach would be to appeal to the moderator (or in this case, the audience) for assistance. Since the purpose of the panel was to educate the audience in the benefits of various investment approaches, one action you could have taken would be to inform the group that you will stop participating unless ground rules are followed. Presumably the audience was there to learn, not just be entertained, and would support your decision. If the rude panelist modified his behavior, everyone would benefit. If he did not, he would risk the important information he had to share being lost due to his noisome behavior. Either way, your behavior demonstrates respect for the audience, your fellow panelists and yourself.

Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question at InvestmentNews.com/ ethicist. All submissions will be treated confidentially.

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