Ethics Case Study of the Week: Side Job in a Comedy Club is Fine, Right?

By Gary Sarkissian posted 10-26-2020 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 I(B) Independence and Objectivity. 

Side Job in a Comedy Club is Fine, Right?
Gary Stansfield, CFA, works as a portfolio manager at Pitt Asset Management (PAM) based in New York. He has been actively involved with theatre since his college days and performs occasionally as a stand-up comedian at a comedy club after work hours. He is not compensated for his performances, but he is hoping to leave his job to launch an entertainment career. Audience members often show their appreciation for Stansfield’s act by giving him nominal tips. One night, Elaine Bennet, a broker at Newman Brokers, a firm that PAM often trades with and in sizeable volumes, stops at the comedy club with a group of friends while Stansfield is performing. Bennet and her friends thoroughly enjoy Stansfield’s comic routine and, as a token of appreciation, the group tips him $5,000. Stansfield should

A. accept the money and thank Bennet and her friends for their generosity.
B. accept the money but disclose it to his supervisor at PAM.
C. accept the money but seek approval from his supervisor before continuing to perform at the club if he anticipates further additional compensation.
D. not accept the money but thank Bennet and her friends for their compliments on his performance.

What do you think is the correct choice?  Click the “Analysis” button below to see the analysis, and feel free to discuss in the comments below.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit

This case potentially involves violations of the CFA Institute standards related to independence and objectivity and/or conflicts of interest. If Stansfield accepts the tip, it could be construed as gift to influence his conduct because some may find it implausible that an audience member would give such a generous tip irrespective of how much he or she might have enjoyed the comic sketch. The large tip he receives from Bennet and her friends after they attend his performance could be seen as an attempt by Bennet to influence Stansfield’s/PAM’s choice of brokers. But a key step of the CFA Institute Ethical Decision-Making Framework asks those facing an ethical dilemma to identify relevant facts.

A number of relevant facts need to be determined to make an informed decision about the appropriate course of action for Stansfield. Does Bennet know Stansfield and know that Stansfield works for PAM or are they strangers? Does Stansfield have decision-making authority in choosing brokers on behalf of PAM (and if so does Bennet know this) or is Stansfield not involved in the decision about which brokerage firm to use? Does Stansfield know Bennet and who she works for? Was the tip primarily from Bennet or did it represent a collection from the whole group of friends? Do her friends work at Newman as well? Is one of them particularly wealthy and generous with struggling new entertainers?

Assuming that the tip came primarily from Bennet, Bennet knew Stansfield worked at PAM and believed Stansfield to have influence over PAM’s brokerage decisions, and Stansfield knew Bennet and who she worked for, then best practice would be for Stansfield to politely reject the tip because it could be perceived to influence his fairness and objectivity when allocating trades. Although the information is incomplete, with these assumptions, the best response would be D. In working at the comedy club, Stansfield did not violate Standard IV(B): Additional Compensation Arrangements, which states that CFA Institute members must not accept any “compensation... that competes with or might reasonably be expected to create a conflict of interest with their employer’s interest” without written consent. Stansfield’s appearances at the comedy club did not interfere or compete with his day job at PAM, and he normally received tips that were minimal in value.

This case is based on facts provided by Tanuj Khosla, CFA, CAIA.

Photo by Monica Silvestre 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.