In recent times, advisors at various large firms have been grappling with a significant rise in surveillance and compliance measures. These measures encompass the monitoring of every action taken by advisors. While firms have always kept tabs on emails, phone communications, and office activities, the current level of surveillance represents a new frontier. This transition is particularly evident for First Republic advisors who find themselves at JPMorgan Chase & CO (JPMC), where they are experiencing a marked shift from a culture of freedom to one characterized by hawkish regulation and pervasive surveillance. For entrepreneurial-minded First Republic advisors, who joined a boutique firm for the autonomy it offered and the positive impact on their business and client experience, this sudden change can be jarring and worrisome.
In addition to monitoring employee’s personal cell phones – pictures, emails, calendars, and more most big firms are reportedly doing, it has come to light that JPMC employs an extensive surveillance program called “WADU” (Workforce Activity Data Utility). WADU utilizes advanced AI and machine learning to monitor nearly every aspect of an employee’s activities, both inside and outside the office. High-definition audio-visual security cameras are scattered throughout the premises and can collect data even when employees log into JPMC systems from home. This includes monitoring facial expressions, non-verbal cues, personal belongings visible in the background during remote logins, mouse clicks, typed words, phone calls, and more. All the collected data is instantly compiled into profiles accessible to management at any time, and alerts are triggered based on pre-programmed “concerns.” Zoom call durations, badge swipes, and movements within the office are also recorded. If JPMC discovers violations either on personal cell phones or through WADU, they’re fired.
We sought the insights of Roger Gershman, who represents many First Republic advisors, to shed light on this matter. Gershman commented, “First Republic advisors are in for a significant culture shock as they transition from a boutique firm to a large bank. Adjusting from an entrepreneurial environment to a bureaucratic one won’t be easy. Moreover, the reports we’re hearing about the inner workings of JPMC’s surveillance system might prove uncomfortably invasive for free-spirited FRB advisors to endure.”
JPMC has also stated that employees that are director level and above must be in the office five days a week no matter if performance is demonstratively better from home. The in-office mandate poses a significant challenge for FRB advisors who were previously free to determine their most effective work methods and locations. The mood inside JPMC is dire. Employees express deep concerns, often using phrases like “Big Brother” and “1984” to describe the company. One employee remarked, “It has fostered paranoia, distrust, and, to be honest, a lack of respect. Many at JPMC feel like they’re just a number. Nothing more.” The situation has deteriorated to the point where employees have resorted to creative measures to outsmart the WADU system, such as taping over audio and video outlets and keeping their mouse in constant motion. It’s astonishing what lengths humans will go to in order to resist control.
For the free-spirited and entrepreneurial FRB advisor, this transition was not a choice but an enforced reality. Accepting a work environment that resembles a government institution rather than a business is deeply concerning. If these surveillance measures apply to advisors, one cannot help but wonder about the extent of client tracking. While we are accustomed to hearing about government surveillance, the creeping intrusion into our lives is now being witnessed in quasi-government firms like JPMC, which is the most regulated and closely intertwined with the government. The acquisition of JPMC has come with strings attached to the government, which has significantly altered the landscape. To say the least, this represents a far cry from the independence that advisors enjoyed at FRB. Consequently, many advisors are contemplating their options and exploring the possibility of joining a more boutique firm or pursuing full independence in their own RIA as a potential solution.