There was once a time when Warren Buffet described Wells Fargo as his favorite bank. Simultaneously, it was the most trusted bank in the United States. How times have changed.
Wells Fargo is now operating under a different regime, but what have the billions of dollars the bank has spent in attending to the compliance failures that arose out of its fake account scandal delivered? Are the changes the bank has made adequate and effective, and do they engender stakeholder confidence?
The history of the fake account scandal has been widely reported, as has the fallout for many of the former executives, some of whom paid personal regulatory penalties of up to $25 million and have been barred from ever again working for regulated financial service businesses. That is real reputational damage—albeit at an individual, not an institutional, level.
Other executives that did not pay financial penalties have nonetheless paid a price and have since left the bank. Some of these directors may have held concerns about the fake account sales but decided not to voice them. They might have remained silent and determined not to challenge others, including CEO John Stumpf, who celebrated the bank’s high rate of cross-selling additional accounts and products to customers.
It was the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel who said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The victims at Wells Fargo were both the customers of the bank and the thousands of former employees who lost their jobs when they protested about selling the fake accounts. Indeed, these employees were the tormented, and while Stumpf was previously the chief tormentor, it is unclear whether the new board continues to torment these former employees and whistleblowers.
Another prior CEO of Wells Fargo, Timothy Sloan, rehired 1,000 former employees who had been fired for failing to meet sales targets that necessitated the selling of fake accounts. Of course, this was something these employees were not prepared to do. A good friend of mine discretely recorded his own firing from Wells Fargo, when he too refused to sell the fake accounts. His branch manager explained how she was coming under pressure from her own regional manager to hit sales targets and it was because of that pressure that she fired him.
My friend has not been rehired by Wells Fargo, and likewise a number of other whistleblowers have not been offered their jobs back. In 2017, Wells Fargo was ordered to pay substantial compensation to two fake-account whistleblowers and rehire them. Having initially rejected and fought the orders, one of the cases was settled by way of mutual agreement in 2018. There was no reference to the whistleblower being rehired, and therein lies the fundamental problem for Wells Fargo.
Notwithstanding the regulatory expenditures the bank continues to face, the actions of Wells Fargo and its new directors appear to be both encouraging and rewarding silence. So please allow me to encourage you to imagine a scenario within which the new leaders of Wells Fargo determine to voluntarily seek out and reinstate these whistleblowers. What would this look like, and what compliance message would it send to all stakeholders, employees, customers, regulators, investors, and all directors?
As you reflect upon this, we should give some thought to the opposite side of the proposal, which sees whistleblowers being shunned by the new management regime and those who remained silent rewarded with the retention of their jobs.
What we all now know is the whistleblowers were right and the bank and its executive management were wrong. As were all other employees who, by remaining silent, provided “encouragement” to the wrongdoing and the wrongdoers.
Therefore, what does billions of dollars spent upon compliance buy a bank in 2020? I posit not enough when, either wittingly or unwittingly, the policy of executive management appears to encourage silence over speaking up and calling out wrongdoing.