When Company Culture Rewards Fraud

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The story of how Wells Fargo’s employees wound up selling bank accounts to homeless

If this is all you can see, you have a problem.

If this is all you can see, you have a problem.

people, dead people, fake clients and friends and relatives who had no interest in opening accounts sounds crazy—like some Dickens novel where the evil overlord is forcing the starving workers to violate their principles.

But it’s true. According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, Wells Fargo was so keen on being the leader in cross-selling products it constantly threatened employees that if they didn’t meet their quotas they’d be fired and wind up working at McDonalds. In order to keep their jobs, employees worked late and came in on weekends—with no overtime. And then, many of them started cheating. One employee opened six bank accounts for a homeless woman with monthly fees totaling nearly $40. They forged customers’ signatures to open new credit card accounts, bank accounts and overdraft services. They came up with myriad clever ways to get their numbers up to the detriment of customers.

How could this happen? Sadly, it happens all the time. If your focus is profit and you’re good at rationalizing things—slavery, crime, driving a gas-guzzler—you can make pushing employees to the brink sound noble. “We’re just trying to do our best for the shareholders,” for example. Or “We push employees to be the best salespeople they can be.” In 2004, I heard a story about a guy who had just gotten laid off from a tech startup. The VP of Sales had been admonished by the CEO that they needed to make better numbers and they needed more leads coming in. Most of the other sales people, recognizing that the problem was an operational one and that there simply weren’t the kinds of leads the CEO demanded anywhere in the market, started making clients up. But this guy blew the whistle. Shortly thereafter, he was laid off. He was the only person laid off. Not a surprise, the company didn’t make the their numbers the next quarter, nor the next one or the one after.  It doesn’t exist anymore.

Pretty much every sane business advisor you talk to will tell you that if your focus is on happy customers, then happy employees and successful business will follow. But some people don’t heed the sane business advisors. They’re completely focused on fattening the bottom line. And when your mindset is there, you’re in danger of making some very big mistakes.

Here are a couple of tests to see whether you’re close to the line:

  • You set achievable goals. Achievable, in this case, is based on actual metrics and research, not some pie-in-the-sky, get-rich quick numbers adjusted for optimism. Achievable goals make everyone happy. Employees actually like to succeed. Setting the bar where they can hit or surpass it will make them work hard, cheerfully.
  • You’re focused on customer satisfaction. How much do you think about making customers love you versus keeping them tied to you? Do you get feedback from them? If your customers aren’t happy and you’re still trying to increase profits, something’s out of whack.
  • Your employees are happy. Are you making demands that other companies aren’t making and coming up with weird justifications for them? You know what stress and anxiety looks like. If you’re seeing a lot of it around the workplace, something’s wrong.

If some of these things are already happening, the best thing to do is stop, now, take stock, and figure out how to turn it around—before someone files a complaint and you wind up in big trouble. And if you need help understanding how to manage your HR so that it helps the bottom line and doesn’t land you in the soup give us a call.

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.    

We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.