Culture, Not Rogue Employees to Blame at Wells Fargo

Employees at Wells Fargo have done a bad thing. Now, the question is who's to blame?

Last week, Wells Fargo made national headlines when it was revealed that employees have opened more than two million phony bank and credit card accounts since 2011. These accounts were opened in the names of actual customers without their consent in an effort by employees to achieve aggressive sales goals. Roughly 5,300 employees have been fired as a result. 

John Stumpf, Wells Fargo's Chairman and CEO, wants to make it clear that this was the work of rogue employees. He's wrong. The fault lies squarely with Stumpf, his executive team, and the culture they've created.

More on that in a moment. For now, let's look at Stump's take that Wells Fargo had, and continues to have, a customer-focused culture. Here's a quote from the Wells Fargo website:

Stumpf sent a message to all Wells Fargo employees on September 8, the day news of the widespread fraud was breaking. He referenced the company's culture no less than four times, including this:

"Our entire culture is centered on doing what is right for our customers."

On September 13, Stumpf defended the culture in an interview with the Wall Street Journal and blamed employees for the massive fraud. "There was no incentive to do bad things." 

That same day, the company's CFO, John Shrewsberry, told an audience at the Barclays 2016 Global Financial Services Conference, "It was really more at the lower end of the performance scale where people apparently were making bad choices to hang on to their job."

All of this follows a disturbing trend of corporate executives trying to blame their employees for widespread service failures.

The truth is that this epic fraud didn't occur despite the culture at Wells Fargo. It happened because of it. Here are just a few things to consider:

First, the numbers are staggering. I'm sure this type of activity happens at a low level in nearly every bank. But, 2 million phony accounts and 5,300 employees fired is an epic scale. Culture isn't defined by a slogan or what the CEO claims in an interview. It's defined by what people actually do. And, for the past five years, thousands of employees have been behaving badly.

Second, the timing looks bad. Here's a timeline that puts it into perspective:

  • June 30: The company set aside $190 million for fines and customer remediation. 
  • July 12: Carrie Tolstedt, head of retail banking, announces her retirement.
  • September 8: Wells Fargo reveals the settlement agreement.
  • September 13: The company announced it will eliminate sales goals for retail employees, effective January 1, 2017.

It should be noted that Tolstedt supervised the 5,300 rogue employees. The 2 million phony accounts happened on her watch.

Publicly, Stumpf is backing Tolstedt. In a statement announcing her retirement, Stumpf gave her nothing but praise. “A trusted colleague and dear friend, Carrie Tolstedt has been one of our most valuable Wells Fargo leaders, a standard-bearer of our culture, a champion for our customers, and a role model for responsible, principled and inclusive leadership.”

Notice Stumpf mentioned culture. A culture where 2 million phony accounts are created without customers' consent. A culture where 5,300 employees are fired over a period of five years for this fraud.

Finally, there are the many comments from Wells Fargo employees describing an intense culture that pressured employees to cross the line. Here are just a few:

Julie Miller, a former Wells Fargo banker, told the Charlotte Observer, "It became a living nightmare. They almost doubled our goals and decreased our incentive pay. It drove me to drink."

Sabrina Bertrand, a former Wells Fargo banker, told CNNMoney, "I had managers in my face yelling at me. They wanted you to open up dual checking accounts for people that couldn't even manage their original checking account."

Back in 2013, former branch manager Rita Murillo described the retail banking culture to the Los Angeles Times. "We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald's. If we did not make the sales quotas … we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays." Murillo said she had to provide her bosses with hourly updates on her branch's progress towards sales quotas for opening accounts.

So, why would Stumpf defend his company's culture despite all this evidence to the contrary? 

Just like their employees, Stumpf and other Wells Fargo executives have their own financial incentives to consider. Stumpf was paid $19.3 million last year. Shrewsberry, the CFO, was paid just over $9 million in 2015.

Fortune reported that Tolstedt is leaving the company with $124.6 million in stock, options, and restricted shares. Tolstedt would have had to give back at least $45 million if she had been fired instead of retiring.

That's lottery money. As in, buy your own island and a yacht to sail around it money. 

In a world where people physically assault each other for free t-shirts at sporting events, it's easy to imagine what a corporate executive would do when crazy lottery money is on the line.