Vacant Values

Major corporations like Wells Fargo wish to portray themselves as good corporate citizens, but the banking giant's recent scandal revealed how it had a habit of scamming customers. Then its leaders tried to shift the blame to low-level employees. In light of these ethical breaches, I was interested in seeing how Wells Fargo publicly depicted its values to the world.

On its website, the bank paints a self-portrait of an ethical corporate citizen with a 38-page PDF called The Vision & Values of Wells Fargo. The company even pats itself on the back for having fleshed out its values so thoroughly, saying "Most companies have a mission statement and a set of core values, but few [have] The Vision & Values of Wells Fargo."

Vision and Values of Wells Fargo

To recap the recent scandal, the bank had an internal program to sell additional products to existing customers. Cross-selling is common in the banking world, but Wells Fargo's aggressive sales culture was not.

Bankers would open up new accounts for customers, accounts the customers had never authorized or even explicitly declined. Over several years, some 2 million illegal accounts were opened, sometimes with forged signatures and fake email addresses.

When the scandal broke, Wells Fargo looked to blame the lower-level bankers and fired over 5,000 of them. The bank ended up paying $185 million in fines, and the CEO had no choice but to resign in October.

Did the bank live up to The Vision & Values of Wells Fargo? If you look at some sample lines from the booklet, you'll see that it did not:

  • "We want to satisfy our customers' financial needs and help them succeed financially."
  • "It's about building lifelong relationships one customer at a time."
  • "When our team members are in the right jobs, [...] they'll do what's right for the customer."

"Most values statements are bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest," says an article in the Harvard Business Review. "And far from being harmless, as some executives assume, they're often highly destructive. Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility."

The Vision & Values booklet, now taken down from the website, was a document of meaningless platitudes. If a company is going to take the time to craft a lengthy dissertation about their values, shouldn’t the company leaders use it to guide behavior? If not, why bother creating it in the first place? In Wells Fargo's case, it seems to have done more harm than good.