Interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees paint a sobering picture of life inside Fisher Investments that began long before the recent blowup. Some described severe pressure to reel in and keep customers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their careers or violating non-disclosure agreements.

Fisher, for its part, said it has nothing to hide and that it’s proud of how employees strive to serve customers.

‘Written Up’
From Camas, an old mill town that’s turned into a growing suburb along the mighty Columbia River, Fisher instills a hit-the-phones-or-hit-the-bricks ethos. The area (population: 23,800) is no one’s idea of a financial center, but it has one advantage over his former California headquarters: no state income tax.

Fear is ever-present, some former employees said. They said they were held to vague targets and that it was easy to get in trouble for questioning the firm’s methods or objectives. Some former employees said they or colleagues got dinged or “written up” by supervisors for what they saw as minor or surprise infractions, such as failing to respond to an email from a manager quickly enough.

Salespeople must stick to rigid schedules and make hundreds of calls a day, sifting through names of mostly unqualified or uninterested prospects. Many hires are recruited directly from college and are gone in a year or two.

“I thought Fisher was my dream job,’’ said Nick Morrison, who joined the firm in nearby Vancouver in 2011, when he was fresh out of the University of Idaho. He left the following year. “From the very first day, it was just a nightmare.’’

Morrison said he departed after having an anxiety attack in the parking lot.

Fisher’s Performance
In response to such comments, Fisher Investments pointed to internal surveys showing 79% of its employees think that the company is a great place to work.

“For the past week, current and former Fisher Investment employees have been inundated with requests to speak to the media,” the firm said in a statement to Bloomberg. “Our message to them has been simple: speak freely and candidly. The reason is also simple: we have nothing to hide. We are proud of our 3,500 employees, the hard work that they do on a daily basis, and the unparalleled level of service that they provide to our clients.”

To be sure, a strong sales culture driven by metrics is hardly unusual in financial services. But Fisher’s heavy use of direct mail, call centers and stock-picking stands out in an era when many registered investment advisers are emphasizing low-cost strategies, such as funds tracking major indexes. The firm’s advertisements say it tailors portfolios to individual clients. But former employees say that most clients end up with the same stock holdings.