When businesses behave badly

Published by The Nashville Business Journal

One of the nation’s largest banks is dealing with a massive scandal affecting tens of thousands of customers. Wells Fargo, which historically has maintained a stellar reputation, is caught in a mess of monumental proportions.

So what happened? Wells Fargo opened nearly 2 million credit card and deposit accounts that customers never knew about. The bank transferred funds without customers’ knowledge. They also issued debit cards with PIN numbers unknown to customers. Some staffers even created phony email addresses.

The company, which has fired 5,300 employees and started to clamp down on the bad practices, will pay a $185 million fine. But the damage is done. It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild the reputation and earn back the trust of customers. And there is no way to estimate the harm done to the morale of more than 260,000 bank employees.

Apparently the con was created to achieve sales targets that would later yield incentive bonuses. Offering financial incentives to attain revenue goals is a common practice in business. But at Wells Fargo, it blew up.

As a former executive of Tractor Supply Co., I know that sales and profit incentives are core to culture and essential to operations. In fact, our most common corporate conversations are about sales results. Selling is what we do, and measuring sales is our most visible report card. But cheating with sales results is a conversation we never want to have.

To work properly, sales incentives should function in three healthy ways:

1. Customers first. The customer has to come first in any sales organization that intends to develop long-term customer relationships, which certainly include banking and retailing.

2. Driven by data. Sales incentives are most effective when metrics are clear, well-known and ethically tied to the mutual benefit of the customer and the company.

3. Ethics above all. If anything transpires that deceives or cheats the customer, the long-term relationship is destined to collapse. Wells Fargo’s business crisis is obviously the result a large-scale cultural breakdown.

In all organizations, cultural standards must start at the top. It’s the board’s responsibility to ensure that the company and employees are held to the highest standards of ethical behavior. It’s also the board’s responsibility to hold the CEO and senior leadership accountable for companywide communication about culture. Messages should occur with such intensity and frequency that no employee should be in doubt when it comes to standards of ethical behavior and sales performance.

Whether leadership is complicit or simply in the dark is not terribly important. The issue is that in Wells Fargo’s case there was a massive cultural breakdown that rests at the doorstep of corporate leaders. There is no more important role of senior leadership than to create a top-quality culture.

Wherever you are in your leadership career — a new frontline supervisor or experienced CEO — your people need to hear from you regularly about importance of values in your organization. Teams need to know the rules and expectations. Employees must be clear about where the organization stands on important issues. And everyone needs to see you modeling the behavior that is expected.

The lessons here are very clear: A strong ethical culture is an essential building block of success. Incentives must be structured in an ethical manner. Communication needs to be open at every level so that small fires can be extinguished before they burn down an entire company.


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