RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This next story we're about to hear pulls back the curtain on what former employees say was a toxic sales culture inside Wells Fargo. They say a pervasive high-pressure sales environment drove some workers to break the rules, including at its headquarters in San Francisco. Wells Fargo is embroiled in a scandal for taking advantage of customers by opening as many as 2 million accounts without their consent. The bank says it was the work of a small minority of employees, some bad apples who've been fired. But in a rare look inside the bank, former workers tell NPR that wrongdoing was widespread, even in the very building where the bank CEO and senior management team work. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Wells Fargo's CEO John Stumpf has been defending himself in congressional hearings, trying to explain the scandal that's engulfing his bank.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN STUMPF: Wrongful sales practice behavior goes against everything regarding our core principles, our ethics and our culture. We never directed nor wanted our team members to provide products and services to customers that they did not want.
WORKER #1: B.S.
ARNOLD: That's a former employee of Wells Fargo reacting to Stumpf. We played her this testimony, and she says that he's not describing the Wells Fargo that she worked at for five years.
WORKER #1: Abso (ph) - that's the whole foundation of Wells Fargo - is cross-sell, cross-sell, cross-sell. Everybody needs ridiculous amount of products. That completely contradicts what he's saying.
ARNOLD: We're going to call this employee Worker #1. She doesn't want her name used because she's worried that talking to NPR will hurt her chances of getting another job. And if she sounds angry, that's because she is. But it didn't start out that way. Standing on the street looking up at the corporate headquarters, she remembers back in 2007 showing up for her first day of work at the branch here. She says she was excited and a little overdressed.
WORKER #1: Stiletto heels and I probably had about a pound of hairspray and bobby pins in my hair. I felt proud, and my parents were proud of me for getting a job at headquarters. I was very hopeful.
ARNOLD: But right away, she says, working as a personal banker in the branch here was not what she expected. She says the number of products she was expected to sell - checking and savings accounts, credit cards - it just seemed really high, at least eight a day. And during what was called Jump into January, it was 20 products a day, and that just seemed impossible. And she says the pressure was disturbingly intense.
WORKER #1: We were all miserable, and it was just soul crushing to walk in every day.
ERIK: It was every day, man. I mean, it was literally every day. And it was a grindhouse.
ARNOLD: Erik, who doesn't want to use his last name, worked in the headquarters branch, too. He says mornings started this way - with a huddle where managers pressed workers to meet their, quote, "solutions goals" - each product was called a solution. And all day long, he says, it was sell solutions, sell solutions.
ERIK: It was multiple occasions where I saw my co-workers get to the point where they were at their - were cracking, you know, under the pressure.
ARNOLD: And what did cracking look like?
ERIK: You know, cracking - like, tears, crying, constantly getting pulled into the back room and having one-on-ones and coaching sessions, you know, a lot of coaching happening.
ARNOLD: Erik says if you didn't meet your sales goals, that's when you'd have to have these so-called coaching sessions. Worker #1 remembers two managers would approach her desk, reprimand her and then march her past her colleagues.
WORKER #1: They shut the door, locked the door. You sit down. And they say here's your formal warning. You have to sign this. If you don't meet your solutions, you will be fired and it's going to be on your permanent record. I mean, it was real, like, you were stuck. You were stuck, and it was the feeling that no other employer is going to want you because we will ruin you.
ARNOLD: Worker #1 says after one of these coaching sessions - she couldn't make it to the bathroom - she got back to her desk and threw up in the wastebasket.
A branch manager we spoke with in San Francisco said sometimes managers would try to be nice about the warnings. But he said that same basic message that your job was on the line would be conveyed. And all the employees we spoke to said that that environment pushed some workers to break the rules. Erik says that no managers directly told him to do anything deceptive with customers.
ERIK: When they'd say they want to know, you know, where you at? You know, what do you got going? You know, how are you going to get there? How are you going to get there?
ARNOLD: Pat, who also just wants to use his first name, remembers one co-worker at the headquarters branch issuing lines of credit for customers who never applied for them.
PAT: There was this banker who - he had an unbelievable loan volume. And I was thinking - wow, is he that good of a salesperson?
ARNOLD: Pat says he figured out what was happening after customers started showing up at the branch to complain. They said they'd applied for a home equity loan.
PAT: But then they'd also have a personal line of credit for, like, 20,000 or so, which they didn't ask for. And I realized very quickly how he was doing all his loans because he was basically tagging on other loan products in the same application so they wouldn't really notice when they signed the docs and all that.
ARNOLD: Regulators say deceptive practices like this at Wells Fargo were illegal, though in its $185 million settlement, the bank did not admit wrongdoing. NPR spoke with former employees who worked at Wells Fargo between 2004 and 2011. They said deceptive practices were widespread. Accounts were being opened without customers' knowledge, and, they said, managers knew. Wells Fargo says this wasn't the culture of the company. But remember, these workers were not in some backwater branch. They were in the branch on the first floor of the headquarters building, where the CEO himself and the senior management team worked just upstairs. We contacted Wells Fargo to ask about this. Wells spokesman Oscar Suris read us a prepared statement from the bank.
OSCAR SURIS: (Reading) 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 last week that it will lead an internal investigation into retail banking sales practices and related matters.
ARNOLD: And the bank has now pledged to end the sales goals that many employees say were at the root of the problem. For Worker #1, though, that move came too late. She says she eventually pushed back and told managers there was no ethical way for her to meet these sales goals. She was fired by the bank in 2011.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, San Francisco.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.