Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Wells Fargo’s culture of non-compliance

Wells Fargo is embroiled in an ongoing crisis regarding fraudulent business practices in many areas of its banking enterprise. The scandal continues to unfold and touch different areas of Wells Fargo’s operations, from unwanted credit card accounts to unauthorized auto insurance products to excessive fees for merchant banking.

So far the only tangible outcome of congressional investigations, endless scrutiny by the press, and a supervisory board shake-up has been continued discovery of further misleading and dishonest conduct at the expense of the bank’s customers. It remains to be seen whether Wells Fargo can rehabilitate itself and regain the trust of the public and its many stakeholders in government and the financial services industry.

Clearly, however, such a pervasive fraud as this one indicates that Wells Fargo is afflicted with a culture of non-compliance. Rather than valuing ethical and sustainable approaches to commercial interests and putting duty of care to the client first, Wells Fargo chased profits via volume and local management encouraged unethical decision-making to enable bankers to pad the bottom line for themselves and the bank.

This conduct appears to have been only worsened by the financial crisis of 2008, when employees drove themselves to hit increasing sales quotas by engaging in gaming, which is opening accounts only to close them shortly thereafter and then open new accounts. Unethical practices, such as these unauthorized account openings and use of false identifications on accounts, at local branches were openly known as business as usual during this period. Wells Fargo appears to have incentivized this conduct in order to meet financial goals during a complicated, depressed market. Employees questioned the practices but ultimately acquiesced because jobs were hard to come by in the business and the income was precious.

A deeper look into Wells Fargo’s corporate culture in these years reveals a cutthroat, competitive environment where sales principles were constantly reinforced and valued over all others. Demands for profits and achievements in opening new accounts and selling products to generate fees were never tempered by encouragement to remember that treating the customer with honesty and respect was the most important business principle of all. Branch managers allowed and encouraged fraudulent conduct by their employees in order to meet regional and head office standards and appear successful. In this culture, worsened by the overall pressure of the Great Recession in general and the financial services industry specifically, good people did many bad things.

The only choice for Wells Fargo going forward in order to restore their credibility is to cultivate a bank-wide culture of compliance. Employee awareness of integrity, fiduciary duties, and obligations to ethical and honest decision-making must be instilled and reinforced regularly. Management, both locally and at the top, must set a rigorous tone of devotion to compliance practices. Sales quota directives should always be accompanied by moral warnings and should be set at a level where cheating is not the inevitable method for success. Sustainability of business practices, over time, should be expressed as the way to make money and service clients: quality, not quantity. Single-minded competitive pressure may be inherent to the sales business, but this needs to be tempered by having compliance and ethics as a core goal and performance metric.

For a more detailed look into the conduct causes behind Wells Fargo’s financial fraud scandals, read Bethany McLean’s story for Vanity Fair.

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