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The Big Tabu: Facing the Financial Industry’s Older, Impaired Financial Advisors

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The Big Tabu: Facing the Financial Industry’s Older, Impaired Financial Advisors

At its Senior Protection Conference on November 12, 2019, FINRA took a cell phone poll of broker-dealers. They wanted to find out how many were worried about aging registered representatives at their firms.  The result: 65% were worried, according to the report published in Financial Advisor.  Yes, aging B-Ds are a problem.

Here at AgingInvestor.com, we’ve been sounding the alarm about this problem since 2016, when we published our book, Succeed With Senior Clients: A Financial Advisor’s Guide to Best Practices. “The Elephant in the Room” chapter dives into how impairment in advisors affects the industry and how that most definitely will affect their work with clients. A B-D or advisor whose memory and judgment are impaired, even in the early stages, can expose the firm to liability for mistakes these folks make. Cognitive decline should not be taken lightly.

The speakers at the conference offered attendees very little concrete advice on how to address the problem of an impaired advisor. What could one expect of them? They have no training nor skill set in identifying diminished capacity themselves. Without expertise, their discussions lack action plans.

As aging experts ourselves (RN, Elder law attorney and geriatric psychologist) and a resource to the industry, we question the suggestion that one should wait for “performance issues” to surface before any firm does anything about an impaired professional in its midst. If there is a “performance issue” visible to management, it is likely that it existed for some time and harm to clients already could have occurred. The notion is reactive, not proactive. Isn’t that contrary to the essential philosophy of financial planning itself to look ahead, strategize and don’t wait for a crisis??

Waiting for a manager to call a special team assigned to address the problem is not the best approach, as we see it.  For one thing, most firms don’t have a special team that would serve the purpose of knowing what to do with an impaired advisor. Yes, every firm would be well protected if such a team were formed and that is something we always recommend. However, failing to screen advisors with any in-house tools when impairment is suspected is to ignore the lurking possibility of harm to clients.  What do we mean by an in-house tool? Start with a checklist.

On our website is a free downloadable Financial Advisor’s Checklist: 10 Red Flags of Diminished Capacity to help you spot the warning signs in clients. There is no reason any firm could not use relevant parts of the same tool to spot signs of diminished capacity in its own employees. It is not across-the-board applicable to the professional as compared with a client showing red flags but some points do apply to anyone. For example, memory loss, failure to appreciate the consequences of decisions, confusion, loss of ability to process basic concepts are all on the checklist and are universal warning signs.

What Can You Do With An Advisor You Think Is Impaired?

Proactive steps are essential.  Here are our recommendations:

  1. First, record your observations of changes in the advisor’s behavior. For example, forgetting appointments, failure to meet on schedule with clients, seeing too many blank stares in your interactions with him or her, becoming withdrawn from interactions can all be signs of trouble a manager must address. They could be associated with cognitive impairment or with other health conditions. Managers need to ask the advisor about what they and other colleagues see that looks like a possible red flag.
  2. Ask about general health issues, which can directly impact how an advisor does the job of handling clients. Is it nosy? Yes. Is client financial safety at stake if you don’t ask? Yes. Take the risk of opening the conversation. That is smart. Waiting for a disaster is not.
  3. Establish an in-house policy for what should be recorded by colleagues and reported to managers about possible signs of cognitive decline and the direction you want to take after signs are identified. The policy should be in writing and distributed.
  4. Have a plan to closely watch the apparently impaired advisor.

Asking the advisor to work with someone to supervise transactions is one option. Reviewing how the advisor is managing his or her work at short intervals is another option. And with obviously impaired folks who do not themselves recognize their own cognitive changes (not an uncommon thing), have a suspension or graceful exit means to stop the impaired person from putting clients at risk.  This falls under what those conference speakers vaguely referred to as “other arrangements”. Be specific.

This is uncomfortable territory for managers, compliance officers and for colleagues of older advisors in firms. However, the FINRA poll is telling. If this problem were not rising in our midst, 65% of those polled would not be worried. If you are concerned where you work, get your copy of Succeed With Senior Clients: A Financial Advisor’s Guide to Best Practices, now or get a live or online presentation from us at AgingInvestor.com. Don’t put your firm and your clients at unnecessary risk.

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