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How Wells Fargo Could Have Avoided its Fake Accounts Scandal

October 12, 2016, 3:10 PM UTC

In the wake of the Wells Fargo scandal whereby bank employees opened as many as 2 million bank and credit card accounts that may not have been authorized by customers, plenty of observers have zeroed in on whether CEO John Stumpf and other executives should step down.

While it’s crucial to discuss the aftermath of the scandal, it’s equally important to take a step back and evaluate what caused it in the first place: how did the company’s internal culture get to such a breaking point, and is it possible that Wells Fargo could have avoided the scandal altogether?

Wells Fargo’s managers are blaming employees — 5,300 of whom have been fired so far —while holding themselves essentially blameless. The bank’s board agreed to rescind the pay of Stumpf and former community-banking executive Carrie Tolstedt. Executives could do more, but rather than resigning, they are spinning the situation, claiming that they are customer-focused without adequate plans to get employees on board in the mission.

This is unlike ethical transgressions at other banks that have struggled to turn their cultures around following scandals that involve ethical transgressions.

According to Reuters, “[Wells Fargo] workers have described a pressure-cooker atmosphere where they risked losing their jobs if they did not hit unrealistic sales targets. They say this pressure defined working for Wells Fargo and directly led to widespread fraud in the opening of bogus accounts.”

In other words, the bank’s goals were unrealistic. And as a result, the company’s business strategy became vulnerable to corruption. The other problem is that executives at the top largely set these goals when they should involve many other employees so they feel like their goals are more meaningful. Google Ventures’ partner Rick Klau suggests more than half of goals should originate from employees.

Additionally, companies need to ensure that their employees’ goals are actually helping drive the company’s mission. In a paper published by Harvard Business School, they outline the extremely negative side effects of setting the wrong kinds of goals, citing employee compensation expert Solange Charas:

“Enron executives were meeting their goals, but they were the wrong goals,” Charas says. “By focusing on revenue rather than profit, Enron executives drove the company into the ground.”

If Wells Fargo is truly committed to the best interests of its customers, then employees should have goals that reflect that mission, instead of a plethora of unrealistic sales numbers. And closely tying goals to pay or job security is another mistake, given that today’s employees value culture and career growth at almost twice the rate at which they value compensation and benefits, according to research by Deloitte.

Employees at Wells Fargo—and the company as a whole—could have benefitted from frequently reviewing their own goals to ensure they kept up with the company’s mission, since studies show that companies that allow employees to revise or review their goals every month are 50% more likely to score in the top quartile of business performance.

In order for employees to understand their company’s strategies and expectations, including changes made throughout the year, managers and their reports need to have frequent, ongoing conversations about their goals. For Wells Fargo, it’s likely that these conversations happened five years too late — when employees were being laid off.

Companies should be using data surrounding employees’ goals, including goal achievement, social recognition and who they’re working with, as inputs for performance conversations and focus on reviewing and providing real-time feedback on the goals their employees set. If frequent conversations existed within Wells Fargo, it would have allowed managers to provide feedback to their employees and adjust expectations as they saw fit.

If today’s banks truly want to change their cultures and increase employee engagement, it starts with setting the right goals and having the right performance conversations.

Kris Duggan is CEO of BetterWorks, an enterprise software company based in Redwood City, California.