(Bloomberg) -- Late last month, Fisher Investments surprised hundreds of female employees with a last-minute meeting.
Jill Hitchcock, a senior executive vice president, made an unusual request: Would they pose for a group picture showing their support for the embattled money manager?
The company was in crisis. Ken Fisher, its billionaire founder and chairman, had made crude comments at a conference -- he compared winning clients to “trying to get into a girl’s pants” -- and pension funds were pulling billions in business.
Now, Fisher, who since apologized for the remarks, was asking women to come to his rescue. It would be part of an ad campaign to counter negative coverage about the culture of the company, which manages $115 billion.
The counteroffensive has divided women within the company. Publicly, some said they were eager to step in to defend a place that treats them well. “I would say I understand and agree with some of the stuff that’s in the media that Ken's comments were inappropriate," said Rachel Winfield, a vice president who reports to Hitchcock. “What Ken says and the experience of the culture are two separate things.”
Privately, others complained of feeling pressured to participate, according to current and former employees who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Margaret Duffy, executive director of the University of Missouri’s Novak Leadership Institute, which focuses on corporate communications, questioned the effectiveness of asking women to step forward. “A lot of observers would wonder, ‘Did they really have much choice to appear in the ad?’” she said.
Adding to discomfort with the campaign, some women discovered that the company was also using the ad as a way to generate sales leads, employees said.
The newspaper spreads referred readers to a website that provides more information about women at the firm. The company asks visitors to fill out personal information, including their phone number, address and email, to “learn what else makes Fisher Investments special.”
Bloomberg has reported on Fisher’s aggressive sales culture. Since 2016, 125 people have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about repeated Fisher phone calls, emails and mailings.
The company, which has said it corresponds professionally with prospective customers, declined to discuss how it was planning to use the data collected in response to the campaign featuring female employees.
The controversy over enlisting women for the ad stems from an Oct. 29 meeting. Female employees gathered at Fisher’s headquarters in Camas, Washington, and offices in San Mateo and Woodside, California and Plano, Texas. Hitchcock, the Fisher executive, told them that participation in the photo and ad campaign was voluntary.
At the 15-minute gathering, Hitchcock fielded questions. One woman asked whether a newly launched diversity and inclusion task force would result in real change. Another asked if she could share both positive and negative comments about her experience at the company. Hitchcock told that employee she could discuss more “offline” and then made a request for any logistical questions.
The women were asked to sign photo waivers at the meeting and file outside their various offices for the shoot, according to those who attended the meeting or spoke with those who did. The situation gave them little time to make a decision, they said. About 350 women ultimately appeared in the ad, according to Fisher.
One public dissenter was Elisabeth Dellinger, an employee who co-wrote two of Ken Fisher’s books, “Beat the Crowd: How You Can Out-Invest the Herd by Thinking Differently” and “The Ten Roads to Riches: The Ways the Wealthy Got There (And How You Can Too!).” She is senior editor of MarketMinder, the company’s daily news and commentary website. Dellinger said she didn’t want to be used as a prop for her gender and left the room, according to people with knowledge the meeting.
Dellinger didn’t respond to messages, and the company said she “does not in any circumstances want to be included in your story.”
John Dillard, a Fisher spokesman, said women from across the company had written or expressed their support of the company internally and on social media sites before the meeting.
“Those individuals were brought together on that day to share their stories,” Dillard said in a statement. “In an effort to be inclusive, we asked women at all of our locations if they wanted to be part of our message.”
Full-page ads would ultimately run in the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News and newspapers across the country under the headline, “You Heard Their Story. Now Hear Ours.” Along with the group photo, it featured seven senior women, including Hitchcock, offering testimonials. Comments in the ads included praise for the firm’s integrity, ethics and empowerment of women.
The company noted that more than 800 of its nearly 3,500 employees are women. In an email, Fisher said a quarter of those ranked vice president or higher are female, as well as three of five senior executive vice presidents who report to Ken Fisher. (Five men, including Fisher, oversee all investment decisions, however.)
In a joint interview arranged through the company, Winfield and two other female executives who appeared in the ad said they considered Fisher’s culture to be meritocratic, collaborative and ethical.
While Winfield acknowledged the request to appear in the ad caught many by surprise, she said the company had to work quickly to correct what she called inaccurate information in the press.
Jessica Smith, a vice president in the Camas office, said many women reached out to her before the photo shoot. “They felt like what the media has put out there is completely opposite of what they experienced,” Smith said. “Many women were very, very eager to have an opportunity to tell our story.”
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