How Wells Fargo Tried to Intimidate and Demean Me

By John

A theoretical day in the life of a Wells Fargo employee. Image source: iStock/Thinkstock.

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Over the past five years, I've probably (and regrettably) written more positive things about Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) than all but a few analysts and commentators in the United States.According to the content management system that we use to edit and publish articles at The Motley Fool, I've mentioned the California-based bank in 644 pieces since 2013 alone.

Yet, it wasn't until the bank's fake-account and employee-retaliation scandals that anyone in its media relations department reached out to me to point out any type of factual error.It was an interesting experience that shines a revealing light on the rot that's permeated the corporate ranks at the once-respected bank.

Why now?

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The fact that Wells Fargo hadn't reached out to me until recently doesn't mean that I've been error-free for all these years. While I do my best to avoid mistakes, and I'm confident that I generally succeed at that, it would be naive of me to think that all 644 of those articles were mistake-free.

Even assuming that I got a 95%, which isn't bad given the volume at which I write and the multitude of other responsibilities that I have, that still means that I probably made some type of mistake in 30 or so Wells Fargo-related articles.They were most likely small, immaterial mistakes. But mistakes are mistakes.

Given this, when Wells Fargo did reach out to me over the past few weeks, I was caught off guard.Why now?Not to mention, given the positive way that I had written about the bank for five years, I was taken aback at the exasperated and demeaning demeanor of the two Wells Fargo media relations people that I had substantive conversations with.

The first phone call

On one of the phone calls, complaining about how I interpreted the bank's decision to effectively demote now-former CEO John Stumpf, who will probably be indicted for lying to Congress about when he learned of the fraud, the person spent most of the time criticizing my tone.

I couldn't help but think to myself: Has this person not heard the news? Does this person not know that the bank they work for has defrauded millions of its customers, many of whom are the most vulnerable members of our society? Didn't this person get the memo about Wells Fargo's now-clearly established systematic practice of retaliating against low-level employees who blew the whistle on the fraud?

I also couldn't help but think that this is the exact kind of bullying and intimidation that Wells Fargo's employees face on a daily basis. In addition to the countless media articles that speak to this, I have personally heard from multiple employees in its branches and call centers who all say the same thing.

Fortunately, I don't work at Wells Fargo so they couldn't go so far as to tell me that the only place left for me to work is McDonald's, as they did to employees in their branches.

And I'm also not susceptible to intimidation from people who work in media relations departments. I'm a lawyer who graduated with honors from a well-respected law school and was one of only five people in my class to land a federal clerkship. Media relations people, in other words, are more silly than they are intimidating to me.

They peddle access to their executives in exchange for positive media coverage. It's unethical, but it's what they do. And to be fair to Wells Fargo, this is how media relations people at publicly traded companies tend to operate -- and particularly at companies like Wells Fargo (and, dare I say, Enron) that have something to hide.

The second phone call

On the other call I received, a different Wells Fargo media relations person did his best to express his disdain for my integrity and intelligence for relying on data from a highly respected media outlet.I had written that the person most responsible for the massive fraud, Carrie Tolstedt, would leave Wells Fargo with around $140 million worth of stock.

After very clearly implying that I didn't know how to read a publicly traded company's proxy filings, which is absurd, the Wells Fargo media relations person told me it was closer to $100 million -- after all, the bank's stock had by then lost a considerable amount of market value because of the fraud committed under Tolstedt's watch.

I was taken aback, in other words, that the bank had enlisted its media relations team to defend an executive who got filthy rich by placing an unconscionable amount of pressure on the bank's hourly employees -- i.e., those who don't make enough money to comfortably support a family. The pressure was so great that one employee took to drinking hand sanitizer to deal with it.

What this made me realize is that Wells Fargo doesn't care about its customers. It doesn't care about its low-level employees. And it doesn't care about the fact that some people who write about the bank may, unlike me, be intimidated by the way its media relations team behaves.

The only people that Wells Fargo is even remotely interested in defending are its executives, many of whom have accumulated generational wealth through the exploitation of the media, investors, customers, and its subsistence-level employees.

I mean, think about it, if the people in its media relations department are the ones that Wells Fargo pays to interact positively with the outside world, we can only image how much they demeaned and mistreated the low-level employees inside the bank that ex-CEO Stumpf and new CEO Tim Sloan have repeatedly blamed for the companywide scandal.

The point I'd like to make to Wells Fargo's media relations team is this: It's OK to be decent human beings. It's OK to treat those around you with respect. It may not seem like it to you, but life is about more than working in the media relations department of Wells Fargo. If you don't feel like you can behave ethically and appropriately in that role, then you should work somewhere else.

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John Maxfield owns shares of Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.