Ethics Case Study of the Week: Designation Is Like a Degree, Right?

By Gary Sarkissian posted 05-11-2020 08:00


CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct codify the ethical guidelines for the investment profession that are critical to maintaining the integrity of capital markets and investor trust.  Members, candidates, and even firms make a commitment to uphold these standards as they help elevate ethical decision-making universally around the globe.  

As investment professionals, we are certain to face important ethical decisions in our day-to-day activities.  Some scenarios we encounter will be straightforward, while others may be more complex.  No matter what circumstances we face, continuous learning remains imperative in an investment industry that continues to evolve with products undergoing innovation and a regulatory environment continuing to adapt. 

For that reason, each week we will feature a sample case from CFA Institute’s Ethics in Practice Casebook.  Each case is built upon a real-life example that may involve a regulatory matter or even a CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigation.  At the end of the case is a multiple-choice question that addresses the ethical nature of the actions taken in that case.  

This week’s case involves Standard VII(A) References to CFA Institute, the CFA Designation, and the CFA Program. 

Designation Is Like a Degree, Right?
Bilal Ahmed recently earned his CFA designation and joined a medium-sized hedge fund as a senior analyst. His supervisor, Elizabeth Bennett, the founder of the firm, earned her CFA designation 10 years ago. But she has not paid her CFA Institute membership dues for the past four years and no longer participates in the organization’s continuing education program. Bennett uses the CFA designation on her business card and on all the marketing materials for the fund. When Ahmed asks Bennett about her using the designation, Bennett tells him that since she passed the exam and earned the charter, the credential is similar to a degree from university that cannot be taken away. Later, during a marketing pitch by Ahmed and Bennett to a potential investor, the investor notes that he has narrowed down his manager search to firms that only employ CFA charterholders in senior positions. He asks Bennett if everyone in the firm on the investment side is a CFA charterholder. Bennett responds “Yes, that is correct.” Ahmed does not respond. Did either Ahmed or Bennett violate the CFA Institute Standards of Professional Conduct?

A.  Ahmed violated the CFA Institute Standards of Professional Conduct.
B.  Ahmed did not violate the CFA Institute Standards of Professional Conduct.
C.  Bennet violated the CFA Institute Standards of Professional Conduct.
D.  Bennett did not violate the CFA Institute Standards of Professional Conduct.

What do you think is the correct choice?  Feel free to discuss in the comments below and make sure to check back later this week as we post the analysis.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit

[Update – 5/14/2020]
Welcome back!  Here is the analysis of this case:

This case relates to CFA Institute Standard VII(B): Reference to CFA Institute, the CFA Designation, and the CFA Program, which states that when referring to the CFA designation, CFA Institute members and candidates “must not misrepresent ... holding the designation.” The CFA designation is unlike a degree from university in that once granted the right to use the designation, individuals must also satisfy CFA Institute membership requirements (including paying dues) to maintain the right to refer to themselves as CFA charterholders. Although Bennett earned her charter, her membership is considered lapsed because she has not been paying dues to CFA Institute. Until her membership is reactivated, she must not present herself as a charterholder, and by continuing to use the CFA designation and representing herself as a charterholder to a potential client, Bennett has violated Standard VII(B).

Participation in the CFA Institute Continuing Education Program is not mandatory for maintaining your designation, but it is encouraged as a way to meet the CFA Institute Code of Ethics provision that calls for members to maintain and improve their professional competence. Ahmed hears Bennett refer to herself as a charterholder, but knows that Bennett’s CFA Institute membership has lapsed. Standard I(A): Knowledge of the Law prohibits members from knowingly participating or assisting in the violations of others and requires members to dissociate from any unethical or illegal conduct. The issue for Ahmed is whether his acquiescence and silence in the face of Bennett’s misrepresentation rises to the level of assisting or participating in Bennett’s violation of the standard.

It could be argued that Ahmed’s participation in a sales meeting in which he knows false information is given to a potential investor, and which could cause harm to that investor, constitutes assisting in the violations of those who provide that false information even if there is no active conduct by Ahmed. Best practice would be for Ahmed to address Bennett directly about her conduct and ask her to reinstate her membership or correct the statement made to the potential investor. If Bennett refuses to take corrective action, Ahmed could bring this conduct to the attention of the fund’s compliance department for them to address and dissociate from the activity by not participating in any additional sales meetings with Bennett.

This case was written by Tanuj Khosla, CFA, CAIA

Photo by Ekrulila from Pexels

© 2018 CFA Institute. All rights reserved. You may copy and distribute this content, without modification and for non-commercial purposes, provided you attribute the content to CFA Institute and retain this copyright notice. This case was written as a basis for discussion and is not prescriptive of how a business situation or professional conduct matter should or should not be handled or addressed. Certain characters mentioned are fictional to facilitate discussion, and any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.