With all the new coverage of Wells Fargo's fake-account debacle, I have yet to see an answer to this pivotal question: How does one simply miss over 5,300 wrongdoers at a bank?
How can so many employees across so many branches go off the rails and no one know about it? The easiest answer: This was an ingrained practice. By firing so many employees, Wells has all but acknowledged that unethical behavior was rampant. Rather than a needle in a haystack, the huge number of employees opening sham accounts was an overt sign of an organizational culture problem.
Such an entrenched problem at such a large bank suggests the banking industry's ethics are still fundamentally awry eight years after the mortgage meltdown. Perhaps most frightening is that the ethical deficit in business is not limited to banking or to the United States. When you want to ruin a good day, read the Covalence annual ranking of the ethical performance of multinational corporations, or simply Google "most unethical companies." What you will find are only the ethics incidents we know about.
So what has caused this ethical breakdown? I would point to two factors in particular. First, the concern for personal careers and corporate profits in many companies crushes everything else. When making numbers and advancing careers is so dominant, you get a Wells Fargo-like debacle and a mortgage crisis, you don't get adherence to the Caux Roundtable standards or Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative principles.
The research is clear that industry's focus on materialistic orientations of both the organization and the individual are not associated with ethics and social responsibility. Because materialistic orientations define our modern organizational world, the toxin is embedded within everything we do.
Second, ethics and social responsibility are nice concepts for codes of ethics that are published in the light of day. These are the pretty curtains that many organizations use to demonstrate their commitment to the greater good; a commitment that some undoubtedly have. But to many organizations, ethics and social responsibility are no more than impression management and public relations that deflect from the activities actually going on within the organization.
In too many organizations, ethical employees are suspect, seen as potentially disloyal because they put moral concerns on an equal footing with financial ones. Those employees are stigmatized for their ethical standards and ultimately leave because they cannot get ahead with their souls in one piece. So who stays? The ones with a more narrowly focused bottom-line orientation.
So what can be done? Banks need to implement functioning ethics safeguards — and actually use them. First, don't let the wrongdoers into the company. Then, set the ethical standards for new recruits at the start. Screen managers and entry-level personnel carefully. Make clear to employees that the consequences for unethical behavior are real. If in the annals of ethical wrongdoing there are new additions of ruined careers, prison time and financial judgments, we would see a substantive downturn in wrongdoing.
Second, set up real avenues for employees to report wrongdoing and get counsel on the reporting process. While companies claim they have these avenues, many have only faux processes in place and they don't work. As a result, reporting unethical behavior can be personally risky, leading to faux results where everything looks fine.
Finally (and most critically), set up an exit interview and survey system where employees leaving can report what is really going on. With all the work that I've done in this area, I remain convinced that it is here that employees are most likely to tell you the absolute truth if you establish the process correctly.
Yes, this means unethical behavior will still be revealed after it has happened, but hopefully it will be before 2 million fake accounts have been opened and 5,300 needles in a haystack have gone undetected.
Robert A. Giacalone is the Daniels Chair in Business Ethics at the University of Denver. He has edited or written numerous books and articles on ethics and values, impression management and exit interviewing. He can be reached at Robert.Giacalone@DU.edu.