Voices From Wells Fargo: ‘I Thought I Was Having a Heart Attack’

The scandal at Wells Fargo over the creation of unauthorized accounts shook its customers’ faith in the bank, but it took an even sharper toll on the company’s workers. A number of them say they faced a stark choice: Create new accounts by any means possible, or risk being fired for falling short of their sales goals.

Several former Wells Fargo employees gave The New York Times firsthand accounts, by email or by phone interview, of how that pressure affected them, and of the ethical shortcuts they say they saw colleagues take. The following are excerpts. Some people asked to be identified only by their first name and last initial, to protect their future employment prospects.

Wells Fargo responded by saying it did not have “specific comments on the team members involved” but wanted to reiterate that the bank had “made fundamental changes to help ensure team members are not being pressured to sell products, customers are receiving the right solutions for their financial needs, our customer-focused culture is upheld at all times and that customer satisfaction is high.”

“From that point, I began drinking the hand sanitizer.”

Angie Payden, banker in Hudson, Wis., 2011 to 2014

Actions that I was forced to do as a banker included:

1). Opening travel checking accounts for customers by convincing them that it was unsafe to travel without a separate checking account and debit card;

2). Coercing customers to open credit card accounts to use as overdraft protection for their checking accounts when they were already struggling to keep their checking accounts balanced;

3). Witnessing other bankers and being pressured by management to add credit defense onto new credit applications without the customer’s knowledge, which led to unnecessary monthly fees;

4). Closing and opening new accounts for customers by convincing them that there had been fraud on their existing accounts.

I started to have extreme physical stress-related symptoms as well as random panic attacks. At some point during that summer, the stress was so intense that I could no longer handle the pressure. On the banker’s desk, in the bathroom, behind the teller line and in the vault, the store kept bottles of hand sanitizer.

One morning, before meeting with a customer, in which I knew I was going to have to sell unneeded services, I had a severe panic attack. I went to the bathroom and took a drink of some hand sanitizer.

This immediately reduced my anxiety. From that point, I began drinking the hand sanitizer all over the bank.

In late November 2012, I was completely addicted to hand sanitizer and drinking at least a bottle a day during my workday. In December, I was confronted by management about my behavior. I decided to seek treatment and went on leave.

The recent news stories have reactivated my memories and P.T.S.D. I am now having nightmares and flashbacks of that time period. It is horrible.

“I thought I was having a heart attack.”

Scott T., teller and sales/service representative in Galesburg, Ill., 2009

I started as a teller because it was the only available position, and I figured it would give me an edge when a banker position opened up. As a teller, you had to sell products and make referrals. Every day, your supervisor would make you set a sales goal, follow up on reaching that sales goal and coach you on how to make those sales.

A banker position opened up, and I applied. My district manager told me my sales numbers as a teller didn’t justify becoming a personal banker, but she could make me a customer sales and service representative, which was basically a personal banker with slightly smaller sales goals and an obviously smaller hourly rate. I accepted the position because it paid more than being a teller.

I believe my daily product sales goal was six a day. It didn’t matter if you had 20 products one day, you still had to meet your goal every other day. A seasoned banker taught me to put fake appointments on your calendar, and then have them “cancel and rebook” for another day.

I was once scolded for not selling an elderly lady a credit card by telling her that she could use it as a form of ID if she went to a teller who didn’t know her. Even if a customer didn’t want access to online banking, we were taught to force them into it. If they didn’t have an email to use for online banking, make one up. Once they logged into online banking for the first time, you made a sale.

There were numerous days where I would hide in the men’s bathroom crying. It got so bad that one day I left work to go to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turns out it was an anxiety attack. I thought I was going to have a heart attack or stroke if I stayed any longer.

“Even though I was reaching my sales goals, it was not enough.”

Dennise C., teller and banker in Houston, 2010 to 2016

Managers kept a board right by the teller line where we would write how many people we had talked to, how many we had referred to a banker and how many sales were closed. At the end of the day, the manager would call out each teller in front of everybody and share their results. It was a frightening experience. If tellers did not have any sales on the board, you did not want to be that person.

I transferred to a different branch thinking the grass would be greener. Well, I was wrong — same story. I ended up transferring again! I was later promoted to banker, nothing had changed. The pressure was so strong that one of my co-workers was fired for opening unauthorized credit cards.

The last three months were hell. Even though I was reaching my sales goals, it was not enough for them. Every morning I had to sit with my boss and go over the previous day and every single customer’s relationship. I had to tell them why I didn’t force them into opening that third, fourth, fifth checking account that they could have used for Christmas, their son’s birthday, school, a pet and so on. I had to explain why I did not feel comfortable with pushing people into paying for something they did not need.

I was so stressed out, I developed shingles. The last straw was when the district manager laughed at me in front of my manager because I explained that I did not feel comfortable with the sales culture and the robotic paragraphs they had us memorize to force people into giving in. The following day I put in my two weeks’ notice.

“I felt like a cheat.”

Ashlie Storms, teller and banker in West Milford, N.J., 2005 to 2016

I started with Wachovia as a teller and worked my way up to lead teller, then teller manager. When the conversion to Wells Fargo came in 2011, my position converted to service manager.

Being in the same office for so long, I got to know each customer’s financial footprint very well. When I saw so many of those relationships end because they were put in the hands of faulty bankers, I decided to become a banker myself when the opportunity opened.

It was a struggle for me at first, since I am a firm believer that the customer is always right. If they tell me they’re not interested in a product or service, who am I to make them do otherwise? I wouldn’t want to be forced into opening something I don’t need.

Having that attitude got me nowhere. It was sink or swim.

We would have conference calls with regional presidents and managers coaching us on how to word our selling points so the customer can’t say no. I felt like a cheat. I started losing sleep and got nauseous every Sunday night over the start of the next workweek.

This year, I reported a customer incident to the corporate office and the ethics line. Soon after, my district manager showed up. Not his usual friendly self, either — he just grabbed my manager and sat in the back office with the door closed. I started to feel sick.

After an hour or so, he walked out. My manager then called me into the back office to give me a performance improvement plan. Retaliation at its finest. I never had any conversation with anyone regarding my performance, or my interactions with customers, lack of sales or my attitude. I felt cornered and just low. For the first time in my career with the company, I did the right thing — and I was reprimanded for it.

I almost left without having a backup plan, but then I was offered a job at a dealership. It was a pay cut at first, but is very rewarding compared to what I endured.

“The reason I’m not shutting up is that I’ve realized how many employees were in the same position as me.”

Julie Miller, banker and manager in Allentown, Pa., 2005 to 2013

I got terminated for not achieving my sales goals one year after receiving an annual award for being in the top 2 percent of managers in the country for sales.

I moved to a new branch, and the goals in that branch were so insane that there was no way to reach them without lying or committing fraud. They would grill us every day; it was nonstop badgering and berating. It was verbal and mental abuse. I was like, “I just divorced a guy because he was like this to me, and now I’m working for a company that does it?”

After I was fired, I couldn’t get a job in banking because I had been fired. I was unemployed for two years. I had to take a big chunk of money out of my 401(k) just to survive, and to pay my Wells Fargo mortgage so I wouldn’t lose my house.

I was at the House Financial Services Committee hearing, representing the Committee for Better Banks. I was sitting five feet away from John Stumpf. He lied. He said, “People should not be fired for missing sales goals.” That’s exactly why I was fired.

I filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. I’m not allowed to discuss the outcome. They gave me some small compensation to shut up and go away. The reason I’m not shutting up is that I’ve realized how many employees were in the same position as me.


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