May 5, 2020

Corporate Culture and Employee Mistreatment: When Blowing the Whistle is Your Only Option

Billionaire Mark Cuban recently warned companies that how they treat their employees during the Covid-19 pandemic will “define their brand for decades.”[1] 

If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company.  If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company . . . that’s going to be unforgivable.”[2]

Cuban is right.

While many employees are too familiar, to a certain extent, to the daily indignities and pride-swallowing that can come with climbing the company ladder (or even just staying on the same rung), there are times when corporate conduct becomes completely intolerable.  Forcing workers back into close confinement for 8 to 12-hour days during a pandemic, leading to further transmission of Covid-19 and significant harm to employees (and, ultimately, the employer) is, as Cuban observes, one of those times.  Unfortunately, this circumstance is not a generational black swan or singularly isolated occurrence.

The unfortunate truth is that corporations regularly force their employees into similar all-or-nothing situations by requiring them to commit unethical and improper conduct.  When corporate fraud becomes institutionalized, it is always done with either the tacit or direct approval of management.  It is most often carried out, however, by employees who are forced to choose between doing something they know is wrong on one hand and keeping their job on the other.  What can seem like an obvious ethical decision is clouded darkly by a mortgage, bills, and the fear of failing one’s family.  Corporate behavior – especially in many sales and commission-based fields – relies on this Hobson’s choice.  Employees faced with a choice of doing the right thing or keeping their job have no real choice at all.  While corporations regularly provide nominal opportunities for internal whistleblowing, “anonymous” internal reporting hotlines often do little more than identify and isolate the whistleblower.

The recent Wells Fargo banking scandal is a singular example of how effectively institutionalized corporate wrongdoing works hand-in-hand with unrelenting pressure on employees to commit fraud or lose a job.  As alleged in a recent action filed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) Wells Fargo senior management created and enforced sales policies that resulted in employees issuing products and services to clients without client consent.[3] 

Wells Fargo employees were given impossible account-opening quotas and faced near-certain termination for failing to achieve those targets.[4]  In some cases, employees achieving 98% to 110% of their goals were put on notice that they would be terminated.[5]  Many employees were forced to achieve sales goals of 120%.[6]  Termination for failure was not the only penalty.  In some cases, employees were threatened with “transfer[] to a store where someone had been shot and killed,” solely as a punishment for failing to make their numbers.[7]

Despite suffering these insufferable working conditions, employees repeatedly spoke up and reported their concerns to senior management at the bank.  Their words are chilling.  Consider this quote:

“I was in the 1991 Gulf War . . . This is sad and hard for me to say, but I had less stress in the 1991 Gulf War than working for Wells Fargo.”[8] (emphasis supplied)

Or this one,

“[T]he noose around our necks ha[s] tightened: we have been told we must achieve the required solutions goals or [we] will be terminated. This type of practice guarantees high turnover, a managerial staff of bullying taskmasters, [and] bankers who are really financial molesters [and] cheaters . . .”[9] (emphasis supplied)

Or this one,

When employees are required to meet unreasonable numbers, they are forced into inappropriate activity to keep their jobs . . . Wells Fargo is playing a shell game – they are rewarding employees for fake accounts and will terminate them if they find out this is the case. Yet management will chastise and come very close to verbal abuse and put employees on written 12 notice if they are honest and do not open fake accounts to meet these unreasonable goals.  The termination ax is suspended over our head one way or another; meet unreasonable goals or you will be terminated, cheat to meet the unreasonable goals and you will be terminated when caught . . .[10] (emphasis supplied)

Infamously, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf blamed the employees for the bank’s actions, telling the Wall Street Journal, “there was no incentive to do bad things.”[11]  Contrary to Stumpf’s claims, the OCC alleges that senior leaders at the bank were long aware of and intimately familiar with the causes that had led to the “bad things.”[12] Even after repeated complaints and scrutiny led to internal oversight of employee account activities, the system’s monitoring threshold was specifically set to flag only .01% to .05% of improper behavior for further review – enabling 99.95% to 99.99% of all activity to continue unchecked when the bank knew it was fueled by continued cheating.[13] 

Wells Fargo acknowledged the OCC’s filing:

“The OCC’s actions are consistent with my belief that we should hold ourselves and individuals accountable.  They also are consistent with our belief that significant parts of the operating model of our Community Bank were flawed.  At the time of the sales practices issues, the Company did not have in place the appropriate people, structure, processes, controls, or culture to prevent the inappropriate conduct.

This was inexcusable.  Our customers and you all deserved more from the leadership of this Company.”[14]

As with Mr. Cuban’s present coronavirus prediction, the Wells Fargo account sales scandal will justifiably define the Wells Fargo brand for a significant time to come.  Despite laying the blame on its own “people, structure, processes, controls, [and] culture,” the corporation will continue.  Many thousands of bank employees, however, will be forever affected.

The Wells Fargo banking scandal is a stark reminder that employees are not always powerless in the face of institutionalized fraud.  Federal and state whistleblowing laws exist to protect and reward those willing to speak up about illegal conduct, financial fraud, and false claims.  Work should not be more stressful than war; employees are worth more than profits. 

If you have questions about reporting serious financial or corporate fraud or questions about how whistleblowing laws can protect you, contact Michael Lesser by calling 888-491-9726 or tell him your story using our online contact form.

We are experienced whistleblower counsel, representing clients pursuant to the SEC Whistleblower Program and Federal and state whistleblowing laws.

 

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-mark-cuban-warns-against-rushing-employees-back-to-work.html

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.occ.gov/static/enforcement-actions/eaN20-001.pdf (“OCC Notice of Charges”)

[4] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶¶6,8,17,25,38,73,75,86

[5] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶¶75-76.

[6] Id.

[7] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶82.

[8] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶41.

[9] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶42.

[10] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶40.

[11] https://www.wsj.com/articles/wells-fargo-ceo-defends-bank-culture-lays-blame-with-bad-employees-1473784452

[12] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶3,6,8,17,25,73

[13] OCC Notice of Charges, ¶94,97,104.

[14] https://newsroom.wf.com/press-release/corporate-and-financial/wells-fargo-responds-occ-actions-regarding-former-employees

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