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After sexual harassment cases, Fidelity’s CEO has moved her office close to fund managers

Fidelity Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Abigail Johnson moved her office at the company's Boston headquarters from the seventh floor senior executive suite up to the 11th floor, where key portfolio managers, analysts and traders sit. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Workplace consultants have a frequent suggestion for CEOs managing the aftermath of sexual harassment allegations: Get involved. Own the messaging. Make sure everyone knows this is a priority at the top, and not just in human resources. For many CEOs, that means filming a video to share with employees, sending an email reminder about the company's policies, or attending anti-harassment training programs.

But Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson is taking that to the next level -- literally. Within the last two weeks, the CEO of the investment management giant -- which saw the departure of two fund managers in recent months following allegations of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior -- has moved her office at the company's Boston headquarters from the seventh floor senior executive suite up to the 11th floor, where key portfolio managers, analysts and traders sit. The decision was first reported by the Boston Globe and was confirmed by Fidelity.

It's one of several actions Johnson, one of the most powerful women in finance, has taken since the privately held investment firm terminated a prominent fund manager after sexual harassment allegations and another portfolio manager departed following accusations of inappropriate sexual comments. Johnson has also formed a Sexual Harassment Response Committee, a new way for employees to report concerns, which will include representatives from legal, human resources, the company's businesses and an outside lawyer. The company has conducted a culture survey and is mandating sexual harassment training.

"We have been taking several important steps internally in recent weeks," Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio said. "As Abby stated last month, she and the senior management team consider this a top priority and made it clear we don’t tolerate any kind of harassment in Fidelity."

But the physical move of her office space is what caught the eye of workplace consultants.

"It’s a creative way of sending a message that 'I’m not above you. I’m here with you and I’m going to keep my eye on what’s going on.' I think it's very smart," said Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia-based employment lawyer.

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It's a version of the "management by walking around" idea, he said, and one that could prevent her from being able to hide behind the excuse other top leaders give that they didn't know it was going on. "Sometimes leaders are criticized for not being visible or not seeing what's going on, so I think that takes some of the criticism away."

Others said her proximity could help model the kind of behavior that's expected and set the right tone, particularly amid the kind of hard-charging workplace atmosphere often associated with investment traders. "You can't change systems from the outside; you have to become part of a system," said Terri Hartwell Easter, a workplace consultant based in Bethesda, Md.

She also said it showed humility that her peers might not have shown. "I'd bet the last $5 in my Fidelity account that a man would not have done that," said Easter, saying female leaders tend to "not let ego and matters of status get in the way." 

But while workplace advisers thought the benefits of the move would overcome the risks, the decision is not without them. For one, it's possible an employee version of the "observer effect" could take place, where people change their behavior only while the CEO is around, and not when she leaves.

"She can’t be like one of those police cars that gets parked at an intersection, where people tend to slow down" before speeding again, said David Lewis, who runs a human resources consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn. "It may seem that you’re altering the behavior, but you may just be altering the behavior when you're around."

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He also suggested that CEOs who follow Johnson's lead take care not to send the wrong message, such as that H.R. isn't doing their job or that employees can't be trusted.

"It could send a message to management that I do not trust that you are going to heed the warnings and training I’ve just given you," he said. Still, he thinks the positives are likely to outweigh the negatives. "It reinforces what I say regularly, which is that this is a top-down issue," he said. "If it's just left to H.R. without clear support from the top it tends to have a greater chance of failing. We make this throwaway statement of saying the CEO needs to be front and center, and she's being front and center."

Still, he said, the real test of how effective the move has been will be what happens if or when another incident occurs. While new reporting committees and the presence of a CEO on the floor with traders may be helpful at limiting harassment, nothing make a bigger impact than showing bad actors the door.

"To let go of the high-performance person" who engages in harassment, he said, "is a fantastic message to send."

Read also:

Fidelity jettisons two senior executives amid sexual harassment complaints

This tech entrepreneur has a novel policy to deter sexual harassment

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