Workers Say Wells Fargo Unfairly Scarred Their Careers

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In the ongoing scandal engulfing Wells Fargo, the bank says it fired wrongdoers. But some workers say they were trying to blow the whistle and Wells Fargo fired them.

Former Wells Fargo employees tell NPR that managers at the bank retaliated against them for calling the company's ethics line and pushing back against reckless sales practices. They say the bank fired them or pushed them to resign and then, in effect, put a scarlet letter on their permanent record that has damaged their careers and prevented them from getting hired by other banks.

Jeremy worked in a Wells Fargo branch in Los Angeles starting in 2005. And even back then, years before the bank has acknowledged having a problem with widespread unethical practices, Jeremy says he saw wrongdoing on a daily basis. Jeremy only wants to use his first name for fear of hurting his chances of finding work with other employers. He says his co-workers in his branch were "falsifying signatures, pushing products on people that they didn't need," to meet Wells Fargo's aggressive sales goals. He says from his first days at the branch he told his manager he wasn't going to get involved in that. "I specifically said, I will not do these things," he says.

Jeremy says one night in 2007, he was invited along with some managers from other branches to go to a Lakers basketball game. And some of them asked him why his branch had such good sales numbers.

"So I broke it down for them," he says. "I said here's what it is — there's a lot of people in our branch that are doing shady things."

Jeremy says he described how other bankers at the branch were hitting their sales numbers by giving customers credit cards or checking accounts they never asked for. In the bank, that was called "gaming" your sales numbers.

"At the Lakers game I told the other managers including the district manager about the gaming that was going on and how I didn't approve of it, I didn't like it," Jeremy says. "That was kind of a pivotal moment for me when I realized something kind of weird was going on." Jeremy says he soon realized nobody was going to do anything about what he was telling them. "I spoke too much," he says. "It got back to my manager and he's like, 'Buddy — what's going on here? My bankers don't game.' "

Jeremy says his manager absolutely knew there were shady practices going on in the office, because Jeremy kept telling him about what he was seeing. He says at one point, his boss was pressuring him and the other personal bankers to sell 20 products every single day — that is, checking accounts, credit cards, home equity loans, lines of credit and other banking products. Jeremy says it was very difficult to meet those kinds of sales goals without breaking the rules.

"I literally took printouts where one of the bankers had over 60 sales, and I think there was maybe 20 checking accounts for one person." Jeremy says he gave the printouts to his manager. "I said this is gaming. She's your No. 1 salesperson. You want me to be like her? And he said, 'Buddy, this is all garbage. This is crap. I don't care about what they're doing, I care what you're doing.' "

Wells Fargo has been engulfed in a major banking scandal in recent weeks. Employees opened up as many as 2 million accounts for customers who didn't want them and didn't even know they existed. Regulators said all this amounted to rampant fraud within the bank, and so far they have hit Wells Fargo with penalties totaling $185 million, including the largest such penalty ever levied by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Given his outspoken criticism of the unethical sales practices in the branch where he worked, Jeremy says, he couldn't believe it when in late 2008, his manager called him into his office. There was someone from HR there too. And Jeremy says he was told basically he could quit, or the bank was going to open an investigation into whether he opened accounts for customers without their consent. He says he was told if the investigation began, there was a good chance he'd be fired. Jeremy figured this was retribution for his speaking out. He was 26 years old. He got scared and he quit. "I went to lunch, came back and I said nope — I'm outta here, I'm done."

But it wasn't that simple. Jeremy didn't realize it at the time, but Wells Fargo wrote him up on what's called his U5 document. It's like a report card for bankers. And the bank put what amounted to a big red flag on it. Jeremy soon found he couldn't get hired by any other bank.

He got plenty of leads. When a friend who worked at a bank in San Francisco got him an interview for a job, Jeremy jumped in the car at 3 a.m. to drive straight up from LA. His wife was about to have a baby, so he really needed a job.

He made it up there in time for the interview. "I'll never forget meeting with this guy, really nice guy." Jeremy says the hiring manager told him, "Listen, man, you're exactly what we're looking for. You've got the drive; you've got the motivation. You know the industry. Let's go ahead; let's go through the formalities. Get you signed up and on the job." Jeremy says, "I got so excited." He called his wife and told her, "Looks like we're moving to San Francisco!" The couple was finally going to have some income again.

But then Jeremy says as part of those "formalities," the bank ran a background check. And he never heard back.

"After about a week I finally gave the HR lady a call," Jeremy says. He said he just wanted to follow up and see if the bank needed anything else from him as the hiring process moved forward. "She said, 'I'm sorry; we went with another candidate.' " Jeremy gets distraught even today talking about this. "This was the lowest point in my life," he says. "I just sat there, hung up the phone. I just cried."

Jeremy was out of work for six months, living off credit cards. But then, at another job interview, he says he finally figured it out. He says a hiring manager at another bank brought him outside the bank building to talk. "And she says, 'Listen, I'm not really supposed to say anything because it's an HR issue, but I'll tell you, I really liked you." But, she told him, "There's this thing on your U5. I can't hire you."

It turns out Wells Fargo had written on Jeremy's U5 report card that he admitted to opening accounts for customers without their authorization. A bank is required to report wrongdoing on a U5. But Jeremy says in his case it just wasn't true. "The second I found out about the U5 information I was appalled," he says. "And now it all made sense." That is, all the times he'd get so close to getting a job only to have it get yanked away after a background check.

Employment lawyers say getting a negative mark on your U5 is like getting the mark of Cain in the world of bankers and brokers. The U5 database is maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, which is an industry self-regulatory organization. The goal of the U5 system is to hold financial advisers, brokers and bankers who sell securities accountable for wrongdoing.

Some major banks have a flat-out "zero-tolerance policy," says attorney Scott Matasar with the firm Matasar Jacobs. "They just flat out will not hire" anyone with an entry on their U5 that even suggests a sales practice violation or unethical behavior, he says.

But if you get an entry on your U5 that you feel is inaccurate, the appeals process is not easy. Matasar says you have to hire a lawyer and sue the bank or financial firm that reported you. He says it costs tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. And there's no guarantee you will prevail. In recent years, changes in FINRA rules have made it much harder for financial professionals to get a negative comment removed or changed. Matasar says there is now "a relatively high burden of proof" that rests on the employees with the mark on their U5.

None of that is terribly encouraging for former Wells Fargo employees who say the bank has unfairly tarnished their records. NPR spoke to former Wells Fargo employees in San Francisco, New Jersey, Florida, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania. They all said they were fired or pushed to resign after resisting the pressure to push products on customers that they didn't want and for reporting unethical practices in their branches to managers or the company's "ethics line." Wells Fargo made entries on these employees' U5 records, and most have been unable to get another job with a major bank.

"I contacted the ethics hotline," says David, who worked in a Wells Fargo branch in Florida. He was fired by the bank last year and Wells Fargo put a mark on his U5 record too. The bank says he was dismissed for "accepting a credit card application knowing that it was not signed by the applicant, but rather a relative on the applicant's behalf." David says his manager OK'd that. He says the customer wanted the credit card. And he believes the real reason he was fired was retaliation against him by his managers after he pushed back against the company's overly aggressive sales goals and reported co-workers who were breaking the rules to meet those sales goals. Now, David says, "I cannot get a job working at a bank anymore. I had to declare bankruptcy because I'm currently I'm working for minimum wage. And my career is over thanks to Wells Fargo."

In Jeremy's case, he says he figured out how to apply for jobs at banks where the bank would be less likely to check his U5 — for example business banking jobs where he wouldn't be selling products to individual consumers. He says he managed to get a solid job with another financial firm this way, but he says having the negative comments on his U5 still limits his career.

Wells Fargo tells NPR in a statement that it's "disturbing to hear claims of retaliation against team members." The bank says it's investigating those claims. The bank also says it is assisting former employees to be rehired when possible.

Tim Sloan, the new president and CEO of Wells Fargo, said on an earnings call earlier this month, in reference to the ongoing banking scandal: "We let down our customers, our shareholders, and our team members. We simply failed to fulfill our responsibility to all our stakeholders."

But former employees say they want more than that. Jonathan Delshad, an attorney bringing a class-action lawsuit against Wells Fargo on behalf of former employees, says many of them ask him, "Is it possible through your lawsuit to get my U5 cleaned up? Because that's what I care about the most here."

Delshad says that for the workers who did the right thing, who pushed back against the wrongdoing in their branches and who were fired or pushed to resign, Wells Fargo now owes it them to get this career-ending stain off their records.

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