The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions

Update: See my 12/10/16 Business Ethics column on Where Wells Fargo Goes From Here .

Update: In October 2016 Timothy Sloan replaced Chairman/CEO John Stumpf, becoming CEO and President. The chairman role was split and given to independent lead director Stephen Sanger.

Update: September 27, 2016: Wells Fargo Independent directors issued a statement  they will lead an investigation into “the bank’s retail sales practices and related matters” with the Board’s HR Committee and independent counsel. Chairman/CEO John Stumpf to forfeit $41 million unvested equity awards and “will forgo salary during the investigation.” The U.S. House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on bank’s “unauthorized customer accounts” on 12/29/16.

How will Wells Fargo resolve the ethical and culture issues it faces? And, how will it move beyond a poor showing at the Senate Banking Committee hearing and start to rebuild trust? First some background. Then 10 suggestions.

The best thing a CEO with strong convictions about the “rightness” of his/her own position can do when embroiled in a crisis is to spend time with trusted sources (inside or outside their company) who see things very differently. Being open to these viewpoints and questions iphone-pictures2-222and multiple perspectives raised make it harder for  CEOs to stay wedded to their position. However, once a CEO is under fire the temptation to stick with like-minded people can increase. What’s lost then is stimulation to think deeply about different aspects of an issue to gain new insights and awareness that enable developing alternatives legitimately aligned with values. Being stuck in “rightness” can lead to error blindness, a term popularized by Kathryn Schulz  who points out, “Trusting too much in feeling you are on the right side of anything is dangerous.”

It can lead to decisions that put a CEO on the defensive in front of a U.S. Senate hearing, as John Stumpf Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo experienced September 20, 2016 testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs.

Stumpf was questioned about the bank’s unauthorized accounts and allegations of a pressure-cooker sales culture which became public in 2013 (Los Angeles Times story) and continued. Wells Fargo has fired 5,300 employees, paid a fine, faces an investigation into its sales practices by New York and California federal prosecutors and can anticipate an upcoming hearing by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee in addition to follow up from the Senate Banking Committee. Earlier this month The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a consent order outlining findings of the bank’s “improper sales practices”from 2011 to 2016.

A few days before the Senate hearing Stumpf, in an interview, disputed Wells Fargo has a culture problem. He maintained that stance with Senate committee members, while indicating changes the Bank planned to make. However, the bipartisan committee was united in criticism that Stumpf, the Board and senior leadership hadn’t gone far enough, fast enough and weren’t showing accountability. From the Republican Committee chair to Democratic challengers, Senators didn’t buy that the bank’s culture isn’t an issue.

Where does this leave Wells Fargo? Anyone who has been through corporate crises — as I and many others have — knows that criticism from outsiders is hard to take. However, there are huge pitfalls if Mr. Stumpf stays locked in the “rightness”of his position (in spite of his 30 plus years service at Wells Fargo, presiding over several of its acquisitions and knowing his industry and company better than outsiders).

His performance at the Senate hearing this week indicates his time has been spent with legal and public relations teams and like-minded insiders. Getting out of a crisis, turning around a culture and re-earning political and public trust, doesn’t happen by working harder with the same mindset. (The much touted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

I’ve limited myself to 10 suggestions for Wells Fargo to support the start of a turnaround:

  1. The board should appoint a new chairman — an independent director — separating the role from the CEO for many reasons including signaling stronger board governance.
  2. The board should immediately decide about claw backs related to compensation of former head of community banking Carrie Tolstedt, Stumpf and any others. As part of re-earning trust, all their actions should be transparent and well communicated.
  3. The board should direct Stumpf and his team to meet with Wells Fargo’s ethics and compliance teams and risk officers to discuss/evaluate ethics, compliance and risk operations for strengths, weaknesses and safeguards to better integrate sales and all business strategies with corporate values and prepare a report for the board.
  4. The compliance and ethics leaders (and C-suite leader to whom they ultimately report) should initiate meetings with leaders of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative and the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics to address best practices, implementation challenges and examples where ethics and compliance leaders weigh in on business strategy discussions in sales and all areas.
  5. The board and senior management should identify outside experts to discuss how to  realign authentically culture around values. A place to start is the nearby Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
  6. Stumpf and his management team should become acquainted with Margaret Wheatley’s concept of self seal (the rightness of one’s position), Kathryn Schulz’ TED Talk (error blindness) and Margaret Heffernan’s  Willful Blindness for starters. These are lenses that encourage conscious and unconscious unethical behavior.
  7.  A cross-functional team of senior leaders with ethics and compliance leaders should review the company’s five primary values; for each, identify five or six specific expected behaviors to be incorporated into company policy and discussed in ethics training and performance reviews. Currently, the values are too abstract.
  8. Under the value “Ethics” the company says “We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. “This should become a business objective with Board and CEO focus to keep this commitment at the center of the turnaround’s activities.
  9. At the upcoming House Financial Services Committee hearing, Stumpf and those testifying can start rebuilding trust by being fully prepared to answer questions directly and completely, having with them information relevant to committee questions. Stumpf should also make himself available to Senate Banking Committee leadership to make sure information provided since that hearing addressed open questions.
  10. Trust is a relationship where “integrity” and “principled performance” are realities, not marketing slogans. In relationships with employees, customers, customers affected by unethical actions, employees pressured by aggressive sales tactics, Wells Fargo leaders have to admit what went wrong and make systemic changes. A start is to amend the vision statement that says “We want to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially” and add “in ways that build lasting relationships of trust and integrity.”The Week in EthicsGael O’Brien, September 22, 2016Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist  for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her September column is “One man’s Leadership Toward a Goal: ‘The Great Mission of Business Ethics.'”

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3 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions”

  1. Esther Cha Says:

    I agree with your statement that John Stumpf may be a victim of error blindness. Based on your description of error blindness, it seems that virtue ethics may play a role in this. Virtue ethics theory emphasizes moral education, which we develop in our youth. It stresses developing virtues and avoiding vices; however, each person develops different virtues and vices based on a number of factors such as: the environment one is raised in, the people they interact with, etc. Due to this, people with similar virtues and vices will likely act similarly, so it makes sense why Stumpf did not see the error in his actions, or in this case, inaction, because everyone around him was likely like-minded.
    Secondly, I believe the pressure cooker sales culture played a major role in the reasons behind the employees’ actions. Pressure to maintain numbers is one of the seven signs of ethical collapse, along with fear and silence and a bigger than life CEO. It’s no wonder why these employees did what they did. Pressure from upper management plays a large role in the way employees act, as seen in prior scandals such as Enron and WorldCom. There also seemed to be a lack of internal controls due to the fact that it was so easy for over 5,000 employees to create unauthorized accounts. Perhaps further segregation of duties could have prevented this. Also, because Wells Fargo is a publically traded company, meaning they should have an external auditor, their external auditors must not have practiced due professional care and professional skepticism, for this to occur and go on as long as it did. Overall, I agree that top management of Wells Fargo as well as the company, as a whole, needs an ethical training overhaul.

    • Gael O'Brien Says:

      Thank you very much for your comment and the points you made.
      Tonight, we’ve learned that Wells Fargo’s independent directors are stepping up to do an investigation of the bank’s retail sales practices with an outside counsel and the Board’s HR Committee and Chairman and CEO Stumpf will face financial consequences. Mr. Stumpf faces the House Financial Services Committee in a special hearing on Thursday. So, how Wells Fargo will ultimately deal with its ethical issues and what further consequences there may be for failure to do so earlier appear to be an evolving story.

  2. Barb Amsden Says:

    I also think that this is an excellent piece – the best practical piece I have read – about dealing with what ethical means. What worries me – and this ties to Esther Cha’s comments – is that with the election shenanigans, hundreds of millions of people are growing up being influenced by what Mr. Trump sees as a virtue: I’m OK if it’s within the law (and if I repeat it often enough).


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