The operating ploy that led Wells Fargo employees to open up millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts to meet cross-selling targets was categorized by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren as "gutless" and a "scam."
And one workplace expert contends that the bank, which allegedly fired those who reported unethical behavior, demonstrated "a classic case of systemic bullying."
Andrew Faas, the founder of the Faas Foundation, an organization that seeks to create psychologically safe workplaces, defines systemic bullying this way: "Setting unreasonable expectations to get rid of employees who do not deliver and causing others to resort to questionable practices to meet the expectations."
Faas and his foundation, which supports such organizations as Mental Health American, Doctors Without Borders, and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, claims to have no ties to any competing financial institutions. In his forthcoming book on workplace bullying, From Bully to Bull's-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, Faas includes a chapter titled, "Is your culture a ticking time bomb?" and he believes "a bomb went off at Wells Fargo."
The key ingredients that foster a hostile work environment, according to Faas, are unreasonable expectations put on employees, an acceptance of questionable practices, and reluctance to complain out of fear of retaliation. "If what we hear in the media about the treatment of whistleblowers is true, Wells Fargo has a much bigger issue than the fraudulent accounts—they have a culture of fear," he says. "If this is validated, it puts to question the credibility of their leadership's response."
The bank has since been ordered to pay a fine of $185 million. Approximately 5,300 employees and managers were terminated over a five year period for their involvement with the unauthorized accounts. The company’s chairman and CEO, John Stumpf, has forfeited $41 million in unvested equity awards, forfeited his 2016 bonus and will not take a salary during the upcoming independent board investigation, but will not necessarily find himself out of a job, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.
"Employees learn from what kind of behavior the firm celebrates," says Shiva Rajgopal, a professor at Columbia Business School.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the bank reiterated Wells Fargo's non-retaliation policy, which "includes limiting information as part of the investigation to only those who have a legitimate business need to know":
Our Nonretaliation Policy, which is available to all team members in our Team Member Handbook and reiterated in the Code of Ethics, makes it clear that no team member may be retaliated against for providing information about suspected unethical or illegal activities, including fraud, securities law, or regulatory violations, or possible violations of any Wells Fargo policies. Team members who believe that they or someone else has been retaliated against for reporting an issue are instructed to report it as soon as possible to the HR Adviser team, Corporate Employee Relations, or their manager to ensure that a prompt review and where appropriate, corrective action is taken.
When the spokesperson was asked why there had been a number of employees reporting that they'd been fired after calling the EthicsLine, they replied: "We do not tolerate retaliation against team members who report their concerns." Reports are confidential and anonymous as the call center is staffed by third-party interview specialists "who listen, ask clarifying questions if necessary, and then write a summary report of the call," they told Fast Company.
Wells Fargo has claimed that the 5,300 employees acted alone in opening up 1.5 million false bank accounts and 565,000 fraudulent credit cards on behalf of its customers.
"If these truly were ‘rogue employees,’ as Wells Fargo alleges, then it’s all the more reason for there to be an objective assessment of the situation," says Faas. "If these people were the scapegoats, it is a tragedy of immense proportions."
If the bank’s non-retaliation policy was violated in order to terminate employees who came forward, as alleged by almost a half-dozen former employees, then the whistleblower hotlines and policies merely exist for the purpose of plausible deniability, suggests Faas.
Wells Fargo's spokesperson said:
Everything submitted to the EthicsLine is investigated. Our team members’ proactive participation in calling the EthicsLine and raising concerns enable us to investigate and appropriately address concerns. Also, at Wells Fargo we have a termination review process where team members who are terminated involuntarily can request to have the decision reviewed.
"These systems are largely fluff to help the company deflect when the news of shady business practices hits the airwaves, like in the case of Wells Fargo," Faas says. "These employees who were retaliated against fell into the trap of what these so-called reporting systems are truly meant for—to set up the employee who tries to play by the rules."
"When whistleblowers are considered traitors, it solidifies a culture of fear," says Faas. "To every organizational leader out there—what should keep you awake at night is what you don't know because employees are afraid to tell you."