In the news today, we learned that Wells Fargo had a small issue with employees defrauding customers by creating phony accounts in order to run up fees and hit sales targets. And by "small" I mean "mind-bogglingly massive."
Over the past several years, 5,300 Wells Fargo employees have been terminated because of these fake accounts. That's roughly 2% of the company's workforce, one in 50 employees.
When you consider that not all Wells Fargo employees have the ability or incentive to set up fake customer accounts in this way, and that probably not everyone who did it got caught, it would appear that this behavior was extremely widespread within Wells Fargo.
It's not hard to speculate on why this probably happened. Like many organizations, Wells Fargo probably set aggressive performance targets for employees with serious consequences for missing a goal. Over time, employees learned that they could bend the rules a little to hit their targets, and then bend them a little more. And over time, the goals probably ratcheted up and got harder and harder to meet without cheating. After a while, committing a little light fraud to meet your numbers seems perfectly normal. After all, everyone else is doing it.
Wells Fargo leadership will probably insist that they did not condone any of this, but widespread employee misconduct does not happen in a vacuum. If the consequence for missing your sales targets is the same as the consequence for creating a fake customer account (you lose your job in both cases), the incentive is clearly there to commit fraud and hope you get away with it.
All of this is a little far afield from my usual topic of writing about customer surveys. But a lot of companies have the same sort of high-stakes incentive systems around their customer surveys as they do for hitting sales targets.
Most people have a fairly strong moral compass, but they can be gradually led astray if they're in an environment where misconduct seems normal and carries few consequences. Cheating on a survey is certainly not as bad as creating fake bank accounts to generate fees from customers.
Your goal in any customer feedback program should be to improve your performance, not just generate high survey scores. But if you treat your survey as a high-stakes performance metric for employees, you are almost guaranteed to get cheating. When that happens, the survey is no longer giving you meaningful information.