Back when news broke of Wells Fargo's fraudulent account scandal there was some speculation that we might be hearing of similar problems at other large banks. Wells Fargo is not the only large bank with aggressive sales goals and a punitive approach to employees who miss their targets.
Similar problems--though perhaps not as severe--are now coming to light among Canada's five largest banks. A CBC News investigation has led to thousands of reports from current and former employees detailing aggressive sales targets, punitive management practices, and pressure to sell customers products they didn't want or weren't in their best interests. A few laws may have been broken along the way.
Tending the Land
It may seem strange that banks, traditionally stewards of their customers' assets, have succumbed to high-pressure sales tactics more at home on a used car lot. But this is a natural consequence of viewing the customer relationship as something to extract value from, rather than something to nurture and grow over time.
It's similar to a farmer deciding what to grow each year. Not all crops are created equal. Some are more valuable, some extract nutrients from the soil, some require more pesticides, and so forth. A good farmer won't just plant the most profitable crop every single year, since that's likely to deplete the soil and encourage pests. Over the long term, it's better for the farmer's bottom line and the health of the land to look for a tradeoff between what's profitable now vs. what's going to keep the farm sustainable over the long term. So while you could make a little more money now, it comes at the expense of future earnings.
Banking relationships are often measured in decades, so it's natural to think that they should be carefully tended like a farmer's fields. But we are long past the time when a bank's owners were local civic leaders interested in the health of the community and willing to take a long-term view. Today's large banks are publicly-traded corporations owned by financial investors who are mostly interested in quarterly growth and are perfectly willing to replace management teams who don't deliver. The pressure to risk long-term customer relationships for short-term profitability can be hard to resist.
If It Feels Wrong, It Probably Is Wrong
Chances are that plenty of people have known for a long time that something was wrong in the five Canadian banks in the CBC report. I don't imagine that managers enjoy berating longtime employees over sales targets, any more than longtime employees enjoy being beat up over unrealistic goals.
It's likely that these banks will be paying the price for a long time, both in short-term loss of business and bad publicity, and in long-term customer distrust and regulatory oversight.
I don't have any magic prescription for avoiding these kinds of situations, other than to say that both employees and customers probably would have told the companies that things were going wrong if only they had been asked and the leadership had sincerely listened.
Instead, five major Canadian banks today find themselves issuing bland PR statements about employee codes of conduct and gearing up for government investigations.