Wells Fargo Says Its Culture Has Changed. Some Employees Disagree.

Wells Fargo has spent years publicly apologizing for deceiving customers with fake bank accounts, unwarranted fees and unwanted products. Its top executives say that because they have eliminated the aggressive sales targets that spurred bad behavior, the bank’s culture has changed.

Many employees say that is news to them.

There is no evidence that employees are secretly opening accounts in customers’ names or tricking them into buying unnecessary auto insurance, as some did in the past. The bank has altered how it pays workers and added safeguards to catch bad behavior.

But Wells Fargo workers say they remain under heavy pressure to squeeze extra money out of customers. Some have witnessed colleagues bending or breaking internal rules to meet ambitious performance goals, according to interviews with 17 current and former employees and internal documents reviewed by The New York Times.

In Des Moines, where the bank — the nation’s fourth biggest — has a large debt-collecting operation, workers in December were expected to handle at least 30 calls an hour and recoup $34,000 in unpaid credit-card and other debts for the month. In January, the targets rose to 33 calls an hour and $40,000, goals that many employees there failed to attain, according to internal records.

“For us front-line workers, there’s an overwhelming sense of frustration,” said Mark Willie, who works in the Des Moines office and is part of a group, the Committee for Better Banks, trying to unionize Wells Fargo employees. “There is a general fear of retaliation for speaking out.”

Two mortgage-processing employees in Minneapolis said managers pressured their team to send documents that they knew contained incorrect information to borrowers to meet internal deadlines.

In a survey of more than 27,000 employees in the bank’s information-technology department late last year, top concerns included their ability to raise grievances with managers and whether “Wells Fargo conducts its business activities with honesty and integrity.” Workers recently flooded the bank’s internal blog with hundreds of angry comments about Wells Fargo’s sales incentives, pay and ethics and leaders’ “doublespeak,” according to screenshots of the blog reviewed by The Times.

Wells Fargo executives said in interviews that the bank’s culture had improved and that fewer bank employees had direct financial incentives to sell products to customers.

“Our entire system of how we pay, coach and develop team members is designed to focus on customer experience and customer outcomes,” said Mary Mack, Wells Fargo’s head of consumer banking. “Things have changed a lot.”

Ms. Mack said none of the debt-collecting employees in the Des Moines group had lost their jobs last year for not meeting the goals. She declined to comment on the Minneapolis mortgage processors, but said the bank investigates employees’ allegations.

Wells Fargo was regarded for years as one of America’s best banks. Then, in 2016, its pattern of wrongdoing became public. The bank admitted that employees had opened as many as 3.5 million phantom accounts in customers’ names to meet stratospheric sales goals. It also admitted forcing customers to buy unneeded auto insurance and charging improper mortgage fees.

The scandal has been costly for Wells Fargo. Its chief executive was pushed out. The bank has paid more than $1.5 billion in penalties to federal and state authorities, and $620 million to resolve lawsuits from customers and shareholders. Most painful, the Federal Reserve punished the bank in February 2018 by prohibiting it from expanding until it cleaned up its culture and internal checks and balances — a restriction that remains in force.

The Fed has said that before it will lift its constraints, Wells Fargo must devise a plan to ensure that the deceptive practices won’t happen again. Once the Fed signs off on the plan, the bank must demonstrate significant progress and win approval from an independent reviewer. The bank is still negotiating the details of the plan with the Fed. Its chief executive, Timothy J. Sloan, has twice pushed back his estimate for when the restrictions will be lifted.

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Timothy J. Sloan, Wells Fargo’s chief executive, in front of a Senate committee in 2017. He is scheduled to return to Congress on Tuesday to testify about the bank’s progress.CreditAlex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Mr. Sloan will testify to a congressional committee about the bank’s progress at overhauling its culture.

At the heart of its rehabilitation efforts, Wells Fargo said, it has changed how it motivates employees. No longer will they be individually rewarded for reaching sales targets, or punished for falling short. Branch workers were told that their primary job is to serve customers, not sell them things.

But the sales incentives have changed, not disappeared, according to the current and former employees, who work in branches, loan-processing centers and other parts of the bank. (Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs in the industry.)

In the past, branch workers were eligible for bonuses if they persuaded customers to apply for a credit card or to take out a loan.

Now, employees are urged to refer prospects to salespeople in the bank’s mortgage or wealth management division, and some branch workers are eligible for bonuses if those referrals turn into sales, multiple employees said.

“Some retail bank positions or more experienced bankers might be eligible to be rewarded,” Ms. Mack said. “The pressure element is not there, but the opportunity to reward team members is.” She said sales weren’t the only factor that influenced bonuses.

In addition, most branch employees can get bonuses based on their branch’s overall performance.

A. J. Bula, a former branch employee in Richmond, Va., said his managers had criticized him when he failed to generate enough customer referrals to the sales team. The sales-oriented culture “was still there,” said Mr. Bula, who left Wells Fargo in July. “Just get someone something.”

A personal banker who works in a North Carolina branch said his manager had told him to increase his referrals to the bank’s mortgage team and financial advisers. He said he had ethical qualms about trying to sell more products to his customers, who are mostly college students and retirees with limited money.

For salespeople, the goals are even more explicit and detailed.

One former salesman, who sold credit-card-swiping terminals to businesses on the East Coast, shared his 2018 performance plan with The Times. It might look familiar to anyone who works in a sales-oriented job.

The salesman was required to book at least 15 sales meetings a week. For every 30 opportunities he logged, 10 needed to result in a sale. His calendar had to show regular meetings scheduled with Wells Fargo branch managers, whom he was told to lobby for introductions to potential customers.

The salesman said that when his managers had wanted him or his colleagues to ratchet up their sales, they had used coded language: “We’re not helping enough customers.” He quit last summer because of the relentless pressure to hit his targets.

Another Wells Fargo salesman, who said he had also left because the sales pressure had been too intense, confirmed his colleague’s account and said he had received similar performance targets.

Ms. Mack said only 20 percent of equipment sellers’ compensation was based on their sales performance.

In another division of the bank, which handles mortgage applications, several employees said managers dangled rewards to get them to process loans faster.

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A branch in Manhattan. An employee in Richmond, Va., who left Wells Fargo in July said the sales-oriented culture “was still there.” The mandate: “Just get someone something.”CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

In previous years, workers got bonuses if they processed 25 mortgage applications a month, getting all the necessary documents in order, verifying borrowers’ sources of income and sending out paperwork. Then the target was raised to 30. At the beginning of 2017, it went up to 35. (Mark Folk, a bank spokesman, said the increase had stemmed in part from the introduction of technology intended to speed up the process.)

The employees said the intense pressure led some workers to break the rules.

In one Wells Fargo office in Minnesota, two current employees said managers sometimes asked them to send customers mortgage documents even though the interest rate or fee calculations were incorrect — resulting from missing paperwork — so the team could record that the documents were sent out quickly. In those instances, the employees said, another set of documents would be sent to the customer after the missing paperwork came in and the calculations were corrected.

Ms. Mack said that, starting in January, the bank had stopped paying bonuses based on hitting mortgage-processing goals.

Employees’ frustrations with the bank extend beyond the pressure to keep hitting lofty targets.

Melissa Kinnard, who worked in Minneapolis as a financial adviser, said the company had sometimes pushed her and other brokers to steer clients toward investments that would generate recurring fees for the bank, including in a case where “it was not in the client’s best interest.”

Frustrated by what she saw as the bank’s culture, Ms. Kinnard quit in January.

Days later, the bank sent a letter to her clients, in her name, announcing that she would be teaming up with another Wells Fargo employee to handle their accounts. The Jan. 29 letter, reviewed by The Times, falsely indicated that Ms. Kinnard still worked at the bank and that she endorsed the other employee’s credentials.

Ms. Kinnard repeatedly asked the company to retract the letter. It didn’t.

“That letter went out in error,” Mr. Folk, the bank spokesman, said on Friday. “We apologize for the mistake.”

Many Wells Fargo employees are also upset about what they said was a drop in their compensation after the bank phased out many of its old sales bonuses.

On the company’s internal blog in January, Patrick Timmons, who works in Minneapolis on resolving customer complaints, accused Wells Fargo’s executives of trying to “string us along with an endless series of platitudes and doublespeak.”

While the bank’s leaders receive “obscene pay packages,” its rank-and-file workers are struggling, he wrote. (Wells Fargo’s chief executive, Mr. Sloan, was paid more than $17 million in 2017, up 36 percent from the year before.)

“I completely agree,” a teller in Miami responded. The teller said there was “a disconnect between corporate and branch/officer workers.”

Alex Ross, a bankruptcy specialist for Wells Fargo in Minneapolis who is also an activist for the Committee for Better Banks, stood up at Wells Fargo’s annual shareholder meeting last April and told Mr. Sloan that many employees felt unable to speak frankly with their managers about problems. He said that some feared that they would face retaliation if they complained.

“Candidly, we need to hear from our team members more often,” Mr. Sloan responded. “I don’t want you to think that we are not listening. We absolutely are.”

Mr. Ross said in an interview that he hadn’t seen any change since then in the way workers were treated.

“There’s a sense among the workers that most of the reforms the bank has made are very superficial and only being done for P.R. reasons,” he said.

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