The message to the dozens of Wells Fargo workers gathered for a two-day ethics workshop in San Diego in mid-2014 was loud and clear: Do not create fake bank accounts in the name of unsuspecting clients.
Similar warnings were being relayed from corporate headquarters in San Francisco to regional bankers in Texas, as senior management learned that some Wells employees had been trying to meet exacting sales goals by creating sham bank accounts and credit cards instead of making legitimate sales.
Across the vast retail bank, more “risk professionals” were deployed in efforts to stamp out the illegal activity.
But the bank’s efforts were not enough. Three years after the first false accounts were exposed publicly and authorities began investigating, Wells, one of the nation’s largest banks, said it was still firing employees over the questionable accounts well into this year.
Some former employees say the explanation is simple: Wells has continued to push the sales goals that caused employees to break the rules in the first place. In fact, the goals at the center of a $185 million civil settlement and investigations by prosecutors in three states are not set to be phased out for another three months.
“They warned us about this type of behavior and said, ‘You must report it,' but the reality was that people had to meet their goals,” said Khalid Taha, a former Wells Fargo personal banker who resigned in July. “They needed a paycheck.”
In the week since banking regulators and the Los Angeles city attorney announced the settlement with Wells over the illegal sales practices, Wells Fargo executives, including the chief executive, John Stumpf, have denied that the misdeeds were the result of a flawed incentive structure or an aggressive sales culture. In all, 5,300 employees have lost their jobs because of the scandal.
Wells said in its defense that over the past several years it had adjusted its compensation structure to place less emphasis on meeting sales goals and more on other factors like good customer service.
The bank analyzed potentially questionable accounts and employee terminations from 2011 through much of 2015 and concluded that it had made progress in cleaning up its act.
Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said the bank’s analysis of that period showed that the questionable accounts and the terminations had been declining since 2013.
“The steps we have been taking have been effective,” she said. “And we are continuing to do more.”
In interviews, former employees say the fact that the behavior has continued to occur – even if less frequently – shows that the bank has not been doing enough to stop it.
The biggest problem, the former employees say, has been Wells Fargo’s aggressive sales culture, which was nurtured and honed over decades at the bank’s highest levels.
“The branch managers were always asking, ‘How many solutions did you sell today?’” said Sharif Kellogg, who used to work in a Wells Fargo branch in Catonsville, Maryland. “They wanted three to four a day. In my mind, that was crazy – that’s not how people’s financial lives work.”
Former employees have scoffed at the bank’s suggestions that the sham accounts were primarily the result of bad decisions by unethical workers.
In an online discussion on Reddit this week, former Wells employees swapped grim stories about the dichotomy between their ethics training – where they were formally told not to do anything inappropriate – and the on-the-job reality of a relentless push to meet sales goals that many considered unrealistic.
Kellogg said he was constantly being hounded by his supervisor to increase his sales, or “solutions,” as they were known.
“I was always getting written up for failing to bump my solutions numbers up,” he said.
Some of his co-workers, facing the same pressure, bent the rules, said Kellogg, who was making $11.75 an hour when he left the bank in 2012. They would ask local business owners whom they knew well to open additional accounts as favors, saying they could close them later.
“It seems as though you’d have to be willfully ignorant to believe that these goals are achievable through any other means,” Kellogg said.
“During our training we go through SO much training about ethics and how you CANNOT do that,” another former Wells teller wrote in the Reddit forum. “I got threatened to be fired as a teller with them because I wasn’t meeting my numbers. I told them I didn’t believe in trying to convince someone to spend money they don’t have, get what they don’t need.”
Bank employees were expected to hit sales goals as part of their regular duties. If they hit the goals, it also factored into their yearly bonus. The bank said the goals were only one of several factors used to evaluate an employee’s job performance. But some former employees said they worried that they would lose their jobs if they did not meet them.
Other former Wells employees have vented their frustrations in a series of cartoon videos on YouTube that spoof on the bank’s hard-driving culture – and the fact that they were hardly getting rich from hitting their bosses’ targets. In one video, a cartoon banker drones on: “If tellers and bankers make those sales numbers each day, at the end of the month everybody in the branch will get a $5 gift card to McDonald’s. The district manager will get a $10,000 cash bonus.”
After the practice of creating phony accounts was first reported in The Los Angeles Times in late 2013, the bank stepped up its monitoring and ethics training, former employees said. For its part, the bank said it had caught the behavior and started firing workers before the article appeared.
In San Diego, Taha said he attended two days of ethics training where employees were shown the difference between valid and improper accounts.
But the problems persisted. Taha, 28, said he fielded complaints from customers about questionable accounts until shortly before he left the bank this summer. He said bank managers had grown weary of writing up reports on potentially improper sales.
“It was like jaywalking,” Taha said of the practice of creating fraudulent accounts. “It was hard to police.”
Taha now belongs to the Committee for Better Banks, an advocacy group that has been petitioning banks like Wells to improve working conditions for lower-level employees.
Customers all over the country have experienced the effects of the questionable sales. Early last year, Walter Mankowski, a 52-year-old computer science researcher who lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, received a Wells Fargo credit card in the mail that he had not applied for. He essentially forgot about the card until months later, when a $45 annual fee for it turned up on one of his account statements.
“It took talking to three different people at Wells Fargo to cancel it,” Mankowski said. “I probably spent half an hour on the phone trying to cancel this card I didn’t know about and didn’t want.”
He is not alone. When the Los Angeles city attorney, Mike Feuer, sued the bank in May last year over the phony accounts, his office received hundreds of calls from Wells customers and employees.
Some of those complaints regarded questionable accounts created only months before the lawsuit was filed.
“Clearly the necessity to fire 5,300 employees shows that there is something that needs to change with Wells’ internal oversight and with its practices generally,” Feuer said in an interview.
Some customers – even those who were not victims – agree and are voting with their feet. Darin Grantham, 43, a management consultant who lives in Phoenix, said he planned to close his checking, savings and credit card accounts with Wells Fargo this week – not because he had a bad experience, but because “I lost trust in them” because of the scandal.
In its settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators, announced Sept. 8, Wells agreed to develop a broad “oversight program” of its sales practices, among other measures.
But it was not until four days later that the bank announced that it would halt the sales goals altogether – starting Jan. 1.
Eshet said the bank had considered this step for quite some time before finally deciding to eliminate the goals.
“We don’t want there to be any doubt on the part of our customers that our team members have their best interest at heart,” she said.
Still, the bank decided to wait a few months to implement the change because it needed enough “lead time” to roll out the change correctly, she explained.
“It was really important when we are making changes in compensation structure for team members that we get it right,” Eshet said.