From the depth of the Harvey Weinstein violations to the seemingly endless problems inside Uber, the past few years have witnessed a string of revelations from within many of America's largest industries. Women continue to come forward with stories about behavior once thought banished to the corridors of Sterling Cooper, and there's no reason to believe that it will end.
This is a problem that affects everybody, including individual investors.
It's easy to forget how democratic, in a sense, Wall Street actually is. Just like making retail purchases, investors in the stock market vote with their wallets. They signal their values based on which companies they choose and who they decide to avoid. Ordinarily this means supporting companies with strong profits and solid risk profiles to build the strongest portfolio.
That isn't the only way to invest though.
Putting your money into a stock makes that company stronger. It helps boost its share price, improves potential dividends and helps it raise capital in the future. As American businesses increasingly wrestle with questions of culture and basic decency, investors need to start asking themselves which kind of companies they want to support.
Do you want your 401(k) helping a firm, such as Sterling Jewelers, that has faced hundreds of harassment and discrimination allegations? Do you want to support companies that invest or supply places like Fox News? What level of proof do you need before pulling your money out?
At what point are you willing to sacrifice portfolio value in exchange for personal values? It's a similar dilemma those against gun violence face when having gun stocks in their 401(k)s.
The good news is that you don't have to fly blind. Investing around corporate behavior is the subject of an emerging field called ethical investing. Once considered a financial sideshow, ethical investing has grown into a nearly $9 trillion per year industry as more and more people decide to build their finances around their personal beliefs.
Ethical, or socially responsible, investing depends heavily on the investor. For some people it means avoiding fossil fuel stocks, or heavily investing in environmental technologies. Other investors avoid tobacco or, indeed, gun companies.
For people concerned about the way companies treat women in the workplace, it can mean pulling your money out of companies that tolerate harassment. It can also mean seeking out companies that take aggressive action against it.
Its success for the investor remains up for debate. Supporters argue that well-managed ethical portfolios can meet market performance, giving investors a strong return without helping to finance causes they find odious. Skeptics urge that this is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too argument, and that portfolios which specifically exclude high performing stocks cannot investment strategies dictated by market performance. Behind the debate, most likely, is the same reality that defines all of investing: Your return will depend on strategy, diversification and patience.
But it is possible to save comfortably for retirement or a college fund without entangling your finances with companies that makes bad decisions, and which may find themselves at the business end of massive lawsuits.
This isn't an issue of waging corporate warfare on serial harassers. Sexual harassment makes up a third of all complaints handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and there's no reason to believe that restructuring your 401(k) will slow that down any. Indeed, if nothing else, Uber's continued market dominance suggests that a company can flourish no matter how noxious its corporate behavior.
That doesn't mean that your money has to support it.
In fact, the general debate over ethical investment notwithstanding, getting out might be the smartest move you can make.
According to a 2016 analysis by the firm Fideres, a company's stock price will drop an average 13% in the month prior to class action litigation (a significant risk once harassment complaints begin coming to light). In the weeks after, those same stocks become erratic. Some companies nearly double in value while others lose more than 60 percent of their share price, leading investments to become speculative rather than predictive.
"Not only is sexual harassment wrong and deserves unhesitating condemnation and remediation," said Jonas Kron, Director of Shareholder Advocacy with Trillium Asset Management, "but from an investor perspective it represents a headwind that undermines performance."
"The additional contributions of women entering the workforce from 1970 until 2009 accounted for roughly one quarter of GDP," he added, noting their "centrality" to workplace and business success.
Companies suffer when they try to do business under a cloud of potential litigation, and many sexual harassment claims can take years to wind their way through the courts. That hurts corporate value, to say nothing of the impact of negative media attention and the brain drain as talented women find someplace else to work. All told, this particular form of ethical investing might well be the best thing for your retirement account.
The question is how to do it.
For many investors this might be as easy as a conversation with their financial advisor. Many large firms run ethical investment groups or have advisors who can competently advise you in this area. Even if they don't have a specialty, simply asking your financial advisor to avoid companies known for mistreating female employees can accomplish a lot.
There are limits to this approach, however.
Unlike strategies that avoid specific industries, investing around harassment is a moving target. Assets can change status in the blink of an eye if employees start speaking out against a company. Investors who pursue a general strategy will most likely have to settle for avoiding the worst offenders over the long run. Those who would like a more dedicated approach should consider a firm which specializes in this field, and particularly gender lens investing.
"Gender lens investing," said Farzana Hoque, a spokeswoman for the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, "focuses on investment products or companies that actively support women's socioeconomic advancement. It is an emerging investment approach that's getting a lot of attention… [In 2016] institutional investors accounted for $397 billion and money managers accounted for $132 billion in assets under management taking this issue under consideration."
Investment firms and funds dedicated to ethical investing and gender issues will not only build accounts around the issue, but they're likely to be the most responsive to changing conditions. This is particularly important for investors who hold positions in mutual funds which, while generally a wise asset for individuals, due to their bundled nature are more difficult to structure around ethical investment.
Adjusting your portfolio around sexual harassment claims poses more challenges than simply avoiding gun or fossil fuel stocks. Smith & Wesson will almost certainly qualify as a gun investment week after week. The same can't be said for gender issues, which change with victim statements, lawsuits and corporate leadership.
As those lawsuits weigh down stock prices and drive away talent, though, it may turn out that what helps your conscience is also the best thing for your portfolio in the long run.
More of What's Trending on TheStreet: