Former Employees Detail Wells Fargo’s “Boiler Room” Operation
On Friday’s episode of NPR’s Planet Money, former Wells Fargo employees offered details of young salespeople being subjected to intense pressure to sign customers up for multiple accounts, ultimately leading them to engage in fraud. The report also undermines CEO John Stumpf’s claims, including those made before congressional committees, that he and other Wells Fargo leaders were was unaware of the fraud until around the time the Los Angeles Times wrote about it in late 2013.
A former salesperson identified only as “Ashley” recounts some familiar parts of the story, including the bank’s steep sales goals. For much of her tenure, salespeople were expected to create eight new accounts per day—though sometimes the quota was as high as 20.
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When she didn’t meet her quotas, Ashley says she would be subjected to humiliating “coaching sessions” and warned that she would be fired if she didn’t do better. She describes vomiting at her desk from the stress. Another employee speaking to Planet Money describes the atmosphere as a “grindhouse.”
But it was more than just pressure. Ashley describes the sales tactics of which Stumpf pleaded ignorance as “a systemic thing that was taught. It’s the sales culture.”
Stumpf, by contrast, has said that such behavior “in no way reflects our culture.”
In a statement to Fortune, a bank spokesperson said, “At Wells Fargo, our No. 1 priority is making things right with our customers and restoring the public trust, and we are dedicated to ensuring that all aspects of the company’s business are conducted with integrity, transparency, and oversight. Although the vast majority of our team members do the right thing every day on behalf of our customers, these allegations and accusations are very serious. And if any of these things transpired, it’s distressing, and it’s not who Wells Fargo is. Our board announced that it will lead an internal investigation into retail banking sales practices and related matters. We will continue to work hard to restore our customers’ faith and regain the public’s trust.”
The tactics that emerged included splitting customers’ funds into multiple accounts instead of just one. Ashley describes one incident in which a customer overdrafted repeatedly because his funds had been spread into multiple accounts. She says she used her own money to cover some of the fees the customer incurred. Employees also tricked customers into signing paperwork for unwanted accounts.
Employees also relied on friends and relatives to help them make their numbers, selling accounts to the likes of parents and roommates. Perhaps the most disturbing detail that emerges in Planet Money’s reporting is that young employees would often be fired after they had fully exploited their personal relationships in this way.
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Other details dent leadership’s claims of ignorance of unethical practices. Much of what Ashley describes happened in the building where CEO John Stumpf worked—he parked his car in an alley behind her desk. Customers also lodged regular complaints about the unwanted accounts, which seemed to have little or no impact on the bank’s practices until formal investigations began.
Ashley finally pushed back against all of this—at serious personal cost. She began to refuse to meet her quota, and tried to file her concerns with the bank’s ethics hotline, but felt she was ignored. She was then not only fired, but was blacklisted by Wells Fargo in a database shared by other banks. That ultimately prevented her from continuing a career in banking.