“You don’t have to choose between character and intelligence when it comes to employees. You can have both.”

Wall Street insider Jamie Fiore Higgins leaves this parting message to her former employer in the final pages of “Bully Market: My Story of Money and Misogyny at Goldman Sachs.”

In her near 300-page memoir, Higgins chronicles her meteoric rise at the most prestigious investment bank in the world. Her account is riveting—and not just because she offers an exclusive peek into the so-called black box of Wall Street.

Higgins recreates the microaggressions that comprised her daily work life for 18 years with the heightened consciousness of an abuse survivor. With every heckle and offensive behavior she unlocks from the vault, two overarching points become clear:

  1. Her marginalized identity was a threat to cisgender white men who depended on the prevalence of the status quo for power—and she was punished for that.
  2. Her professional hardships did not derive from one male colleague. Rather, the issues of misogyny and gender discrimination she faced were rooted far deeper and wider in the institution than her trading floor. Organizationally, Goldman lacked—and lacks, Higgins contended—cultural vigilance.

Higgins is not alone in her opinion.

Bully Market

A legion of female employees from Goldman recently settled a suit against the bank for class-wide gender discrimination for $215 million.

Asked to comment on the settlement, Goldman sent an internal memo prepared by its global compliance team, which included the following excerpt:

“To ensure we consistently act with integrity, the firm requires us to escalate any conduct that could pose integrity concerns. … [T]he firm provides various channels through which such concerns can be raised without fear of reprisal. … For our managers, please remember the critical role you play in continuing to foster an environment in which team members feel comfortable to come forward with any concerns.”

Hero/antihero of toxic culture

“Bully Market” showcases how whisper-thin the line can be between surviving and perpetrating a toxic work culture.

Higgins casts herself as both hero and antihero. As a college graduate, she is just Jamie: The indefatigable Jersey girl with a head for numbers. Clad in her TJ Maxx pantsuits, she is an anomaly of Goldman’s system and its depicted culture of overt privilege and clandestine debauchery.

As Jamie journeys into full-fledged adulthood, she deviates farther from the socially accepted norm of a Goldman employee. At one stage, she is criticized in a 360-degree review for being too “motherly”—and is pressured to hide evidence of her four children from the office.

Jamie is a sympathetic protagonist. She takes every described instance of classism, sexism, and maternity bias on the chin. At one point, she rebuffs the unwanted sexual advances of a colleague over whom she has just won a promotion; later, she endures a physical assault by him, too.

When she finally becomes a managing director, a lustrous title preserved for 8 percent of Goldman employees, it is impossible not to celebrate with her. She’s like Rocky Balboa, absorbing punch after punch from the heavyweight champion and doggedly refusing to go down.

Then there is Jamie the antihero, or “Jamie from Goldman.” Higgins portrays her workplace persona with unflinching honesty.

Jamie from Goldman is someone who assimilates to the culture to survive it. She follows the sports teams of her boss, drinks bourbon, and enjoys sailing. She indoctrinates new employees into the company’s cutthroat culture. She calls out a female intern for her garish nail polish. And when she witnesses blithe misconduct in the office—a racial epithet, a homophobic slur, a sexist remark—she may grit her teeth, but ultimately Jamie from Goldman bites her tongue. She abets the toxicity through complaisance and conformity.

Until one day, she doesn’t. Her dual personas begin to become whole again when she finally acts, blowing the whistle on the flagrant misconduct of another managing director.

Here is where business leaders and ethics and compliance practitioners need to pay attention because what happens to Higgins next encapsulates a breakdown of organizational culture.

Higgins’s confidential complaint is leaked directly back to her boss.

“‘If you have a problem with someone in my family, you come to me,’” he snarls. “‘You don’t call employee relations, you don’t call compliance, you don’t call anyone else.’”

Solutions to culture breakdowns

Microcultures are like pimples on the face of organizational culture. They pop up without a holistic caretaking regimen.

Higgins said organizations must commit to better oversight of day-to-day managers, who run the risk of overriding an organization’s ethical values. If middle and upper management do not embody the talking points coming from the chief executive’s office, those shiny company values are worthless.

There are tactical ways to address cultural issues, which Higgins lays out in rapid-fire succession in the epilogue. No more obviously is Higgins’s whip-smart brain on display than in those final pages, illustrating why Goldman scooped her up at 22 in the first place.

Business leaders must quantify organizational culture with the same level of fervor they show toward profit and loss statements, she wrote.

“These big firms are quantitative machines,” Higgins told Compliance Week in a phone interview. “Yet, they don’t apply that [mindset] to culture.”

She said Goldman has been touting its commitment to 50 percent female recruitment from college campuses for decades. Yet, the representation of women at the partner level is less than 20 percent, she estimated.

“These big firms are quantitative machines. Yet, they don’t apply that [mindset] to culture.”

Jamie Fiore Higgins, author of “Bully Market”

“You should be seeing those big changes up the road, but you’re not. So, why do women leave?” she said.

There is a lack of curiosity and humility at the highest leadership levels that stifles an exploration of that question, Higgins contended. She suggested leadership track the careers of diverse candidates and really look into dramatic swings in review scores.

In Higgins’s case, no higher-ups ever knew her reviews took a hit after she blew the whistle on a colleague. It was a form of reprisal that could not be proved. Her memoir noted many examples of Goldman employees who were gradually forced out of the company by means of manipulated review scores and blackballing. The performance review process needs to be metric- and evidence-based to safeguard against unconscious bias.

Secondly, diverse employees need support and shepherding throughout their tenures, Higgins said. Sponsorships are a way to do that.

“It’s hard to stay in a position where you don’t one day see yourself in a glass office,” Higgins said, referring to the low representation of diversity in senior leadership. Higgins said organizations “need to create programs (for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ employees) that go beyond mentorship. … [These employees need] someone to open doors.”

Thirdly—and critically—middle and upper managers need to be held accountable for upholding the ethical values of the company. Employees should not have to experience what Higgins went through with her boss: having to adapt to his culture instead of the company’s and feeling muzzled because the employee complaint mechanism broke down.

“Set up (culture) goals and make heads roll if managers don’t meet them. It’s the accountability that matters,” Higgins said.

Compliance and sensitivity trainings for management “don’t hurt, but they often just hit the ears of the people who care,” she said. She recommended business leaders hire culture officers in the organization and really empower them “to enforce anti-discrimination policies on the desk as fervently as compliance officers police for insider trading and unethical business practices,” she wrote.

At Goldman, “human resources was on a floor 40 floors up. What if you had someone in HR sitting on the desk. You better believe people would be sitting straighter in their seats,” she said.

Finally, for a culture officer’s mandate to work, there must be a separation of the department from the business side.

“They (culture officers) would need to have the blessing to act completely independently … and report directly to David Solomon,” Higgins said, referring to Goldman’s CEO.

Asked whether she has heard from Solomon directly since her book was published, Higgins said, “No. I’m waiting.”