Today, there’s a bold headline featured in full-page ads in newspapers across the US. In case you missed it, it’s printed in Wells Fargo red: “Moving forward to make things right.” Contrition, superimposed on a beautiful Western backdrop. In the foreground, a team of six strong horses in full stride pulling a stagecoach. No ethical feces anywhere to be found. All have been skillfully Photoshopped out of the picture. Great job!
“We are deeply committed to serving you and your financial needs . . .” the ad says.
OK – go on . . .
“We have provided full refunds to customers we have already identified and we’re broadening our scope of work to find customers we may have missed. If we have any doubt about whether one of your accounts was authorized, and any fees were incurred on that account, we will contact you and refund fees.”
As an IT professional, reading this makes me proud. Darn proud! – because I know that algorithms, flowcharts, decision boxes, and lines of code will rectify the filthy mess from human greed and poor managerial judgement. Geeks win!
But conspicuously missing from this humble outreach is any mention of the 5,300 or so employees who were fired because they “didn’t honor the bank’s values,” as Wells Fargo’s former CEO John Stumpf, phrased it. That’s wrong, because they, too, were victims.
In many instances, the bank hired young people just beginning their careers. Then, they manipulated their behavior through the Wells Fargo sales compensation plan – a tactic that included a sinister triad of low base pay, aggressive selling goals, and a menacing punitive cudgel for those who failed to “perform to expectation.”
Last week, NPR’s Planet Money podcast with Chris Arnold and Robert Smith made this agony visceral in their interview with Ashley, a former Wells Fargo employee who did not wish to reveal her last name.
When Ashley didn’t meet her quota, she recounted that two managers would show up at her desk. “They said ‘come with us.’ So I walked with them, followed the two of them through the large lobby, you know, past all my colleagues, whatnot – you know, it’s like being called into the principal’s office – sit down at the large conference table, no windows in this room. They shut the door, locked the door and put me on formal warning and say, ‘here’s your formal warning. You have to sign this. If you don’t meet your solutions, you will be fired, and it’s going to be on your permanent record.’ I mean, it was real, like, you were stuck. And it was the feeling that no other employer is going to want you because we will ruin you . . . I got sick to my stomach, and I threw up under my desk. Like, it really made me physically sick.”
For this, Ashley made about $35,000 per year working in a branch located in Wells Fargo’s corporate headquarters building in San Francisco where she regularly saw then-CEO John Stumpf. She became disenchanted with the ethical compromises her employer demanded of her. Most poignant was the price she continued to pay long after she was fired, as this excerpt describes:
ARNOLD: As far as Ashley, she started to refuse to meet her quota. She was just saying, look, I can’t ethically do this. She was calling the Wells Fargo ethics line trying to explain this, but eventually Wells Fargo fired her.
SMITH: Ashley tried to get another job in banking, but she found that she never made it very far past the initial interviews. She suspected that Wells Fargo had put some sort of black mark on her record somewhere. And it turns out that is exactly the case. Wells Fargo wasn’t joking around when they said they would make it hard for her to find work again.
ARNOLD: No. Wells Fargo wrote her up on what’s called a U5 document. It’s like a report card for bankers basically. We tracked it down, and we asked Ashley to read what it said.
ASHLEY: Failure to perform job duties.
SMITH: Any bank – any bank that Ashley applies to will see this line, failed to do job duties.
ARNOLD: The form does not mention that those job duties were the sales goals that everyone we spoke to said were unrealistic and that are at the center of a series of ongoing investigations at the state and federal level.
SMITH: It just says failed to do job duties. It was the first time Ashley had seen it in print.
ASHLEY: It’s like having a black cloud that’s kind of looming behind you. And I’m always trying to get in front of the cloud, out of the cloud, into the sunshine, but it’s always there.
How many Ashley’s are there? I’m estimating around 5,300, which is the number of employees Wells Fargo said it fired over several years for not succumbing to the bank’s seedy values. In the coming weeks, I expect we’ll hear from many of them. What restitution are they entitled to for their wrecked careers, lost wages, financial stresses, marriage difficulties, and broken dreams?
Yesterday, John Stumpf resigned his position as CEO in shame, after relinquishing millions of dollars in bonus, and having millions more “clawed back” by the board. But he still leaves the company a very wealthy man who will be comfortable in his long retirement. His grandchildren are all but ensured of attending college and graduating debt free. Future generations of Stumpf’s will live in decent homes in good neighborhoods. Health emergencies won’t send them into bankruptcy. Sadly, even that modest future eludes the families of many of Wells Fargo’s wrongfully-terminated employees. That includes those who stood by their convictions, and refused to accede to management’s deviant will. No good deed goes unpunished.
When it comes to restoring customer trust, algorithms and adjustments in credit scoring will patch management’s wrongs. Bogus credit card accounts will be discovered and closed. Fees will be refunded, making customers feel better. People will move on, and loan money will flow once again. But restoring what was ruthlessly taken from Wells Fargo’s employee victims will be much harder to accomplish.