Close Close

Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

United Airlines and the Fiduciary Paradox

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

When do you do your best work? When someone tells you what to do, and how to do it? Or, when you’re allowed to use your own initiative and ingenuity to get a task accomplished?

The vast majority of people would say that too many rules are a disincentive. The job gets done, but rarely is it a reflection of our ability to provide a margin of excellence.

Consider the United Airlines incident this week when a passenger was dragged off of an overbooked flight. The website has provided the most plausible explanation as to why the United staff failed to act in the best interests of its customers:

Everything is scripted and rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention being pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else [in this case to police] who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Herein is the fiduciary paradox: So that we can act in the best interests of others, we need to decrease the number and complexity of rules that require that we do just that.

When first published more than 40 years ago, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act struck the proper balance between Moral Aspiration (you want to) and Moral Obligation (you have to). “Fiduciary” was defined in terms of a principles-based procedural prudence standard. No investment would be considered imprudent on its face. It would be the way in which the investment is used, and how a decision as to its use was made, that would be examined to determine whether the fiduciary standard was met.

Think of a seesaw where the board represents governance (a fiduciary standard). At one end is Moral Aspiration, and at the other is Moral Obligation. When the two are in balance, we have the greatest capacity to provide a margin of excellence and to act in the best interests of others.  


To function properly, a seesaw requires a secure pivot point. With regards to good governance, leadership and stewardship must provide the critical fulcrum to help amplify the outcomes of a prudent decision-making process.

When regulators become heavy-handed with complex or numerous rules, the result is a desentization of our Moral Aspiration. More rules actually diminish our desire to want to act in the best interests of others, and often the result is mediocrity – or worse, as in the case of United Airlines.


If our objective is to provide those we serve a margin of excellence, we need to convince regulators that more rules will not translate into better outcomes. In turn, we need to accept responsibility to educate and inform fiduciaries of the leadership and stewardship behaviors that will amplify and improve their governance procedures.

The last thing our industry needs is a video of a bloodied retirement saver being dragged out of a branch office because they wouldn’t acknowledge the receipt of a best interests contract exemption.


© 2024 ALM Global, LLC, All Rights Reserved. Request academic re-use from All other uses, submit a request to [email protected]. For more information visit Asset & Logo Licensing.