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.”
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.