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Some advisors say they turn down social invitations from clients to maintain clear professional boundaries.STEVE DEBENPORT/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

When one of Ron Graham’s clients talks about the challenges of caring for a parent with dementia, he shares a bit about his own experience.

“I [tell them] just enough to know I’ve gone through something similar,” says Mr. Graham, an investment advisor with IPC Securities Corp. in Ottawa. “It allows them to share as much as they feel comfortable sharing. Sometimes, there’s a place for that. But you always want to draw the line with respect to personal privacy.”

Mr. Graham is describing a common challenge for advisors, who must work closely with clients to help them meet their financial needs. That can make it difficult to maintain professional boundaries, but there are strategies advisors can use to do so.

“I am always a person first, then an advisor,” Mr. Graham says. “My clients are people first, and then they are clients. So, when clients are sharing personal things, I need to be open to that.”

Still, he adds that advisors must always tread carefully.

“For example, if clients are going through a divorce and one is talking about the other spouse, I try to keep them focused and remind them in a gentle way that we don’t need to discuss that,” he says.

Zena Amundsen, certified financial planner at Astra Financial Services in Regina, also says there’s a fine line – especially if you get along really well with clients – that can lead to a blurring of the lines.

“I have the privilege of choosing the clients I work with, and I definitely attract like-minded people,” she says. “I work to maintain that boundary daily.”

That includes never giving out her cell phone number to clients, not answering e-mails after work hours, and turning down invitations to client weddings and retirement parties.

It takes years or even decades to establish deep trusted relationships and a strong professional reputation.

Brian Himmelman, Himmelman and Associates Financial Advisors

But Ms. Amundsen says part of being a good financial planner is listening and asking questions. And that may also mean sharing your own experiences.

“You have long-term relationships with these people, so you truly care about them. You understand this is their entire life they’re trusting you with,” she says. “So, when they’re sharing a story, maybe feeling shame about something that happened, I can jump in and say, ‘Let me tell you…’ And when you open up like that, they start to understand a little bit more.”

We all learn from stories, Ms. Amundsen says, adding that advisors need to determine beforehand which stories they’re willing to share and why. Specifically, advisors will want to share stories that pertain to helping clients through their financial decisions.

“I always want to know, what is my goal and the outcome of sharing personal stories? What is the why? And it has to benefit the client, not me,” she says.

Mr. Graham also makes it a policy to turn down social invitations from clients and lets them know from the beginning of their relationship that he can’t be reached outside of work hours.

He also never solicits friends as clients. When friends request his services, Mr. Graham sets clear expectations.

“I tell them when we’re at the office, I am not your friend, I am a business partner,” he says.

If a friend starts talking about business in a social environment, Mr. Graham says they should make an appointment to discuss the matter in the coming week.

Social settings, privacy, and what not to discuss

Brian Himmelman, president of Himmelman and Associates Financial Advisors Inc. at Manulife Securities Investment Services Inc. in Halifax, says when he runs into clients in a social setting, such as a charity dinner or golf tournament, he establishes clear boundaries by keeping a professional appearance, limiting alcohol intake and avoiding discussions on issues like politics or religion. He uses a similar approach online.

“I keep my settings private, but I am also mindful that anything I post or interact with reflects on me as an advisor, on my firm and our industry,” he says. “I try to put myself in the client’s shoes and how I’d feel if I saw an advisor posting strong negative opinions, questionable values or beliefs that may be controversial.”

He says this may result in an erosion of trust.

Mr. Himmelman adds that it’s also important to pay attention to privacy between clients.

“To communicate with clients effectively, using examples of other situations that are positive and negative can help explain potential outcomes,” he says.

“As advisors, we must be prudent not to identify any names, where they work or live, or identifiable specifics to their lives. For example, descriptions such as a 57‐year‐old lawyer who is divorced with four kids and is my neighbour are not acceptable.”

Mr. Himmelman also never discusses clients with each other.

“If a new client mentions they were referred by an existing client, I comment discreetly using phrases such as, ‘Jane is wonderful,’ and end that [part of the] conversation,” he says.

If questioned about anything specific, Mr. Himmelman says he can’t discuss anything in order to respect their privacy.

“It takes years or even decades to establish deep-trusted relationships and a strong professional reputation,” he says. “However, it only takes minutes to damage relationships by not being mindful and disciplined with respect to boundaries and privacy.”

Mr. Himmelman says clients sometimes want to know their advisors as people or even want to engage as part of their communities, but less is more when establishing these boundaries.

“As advisors, our commitment is ensuring our clients’ best interests are at the forefront,” he says.