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Labor groups' report slams banks for sales quotas

Labor groups' report slams banks for sales quotas
A Wells Fargo Bank branch in downtown Los Angeles. The bank is one of several mentioned in a new report that says some sales tactics at banks harm their workers and customers. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

Bank workers are routinely pressured to open more and often unneeded accounts for customers as they try to meet strict sales goals, according to a report set to be released Friday by two labor advocacy groups.

The report, authored by the National Employment Law Project, rebukes banks that use sales quotas, saying they encourage unethical behavior and harm workers and consumers.

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Anastasia Christman, a deputy program director at the NELP, said sales goals put workers in the impossible position of choosing between their own well-being – by keeping their jobs or earning sales bonuses – and the well-being of their customers.

"They have a choice between getting that pay or alerting a customer who is depending on them that they're about to enter into a product or service that might be dangerous to them," said Christman, who wrote the report.

The NELP report was commissioned by the Committee for Better Banks, an offshoot of the Communications Workers of America labor union, which is organizing bank workers to push for better pay, more job security and an end to sales quotas.

The 15-page document, based on interviews with 75 workers, alleges that sales quotas encourage bank workers to hit their goals by pushing customers into accounts they don't need and that workers sometimes open accounts without customers' knowledge, leading to unexpected fees and other problems.

Many of the claims mirror findings of a 2013 Times investigation that uncovered widespread complaints about fake accounts and high-pressure sales quotas at banking giant Wells Fargo.

The San Francisco institution prides itself on selling multiple services – including checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and mortgage loans – to its customers. But the Times investigation found that employees, facing strict quotas and fearing for their jobs, sometimes opened unneeded accounts for customers, forged clients' signatures and pleaded with family members to open accounts.

Following that investigation, Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer last year sued Wells Fargo, saying the bank’s sales goals had encouraged “unfair, unlawful and fraudulent conduct.” The case is still pending.

Wells Fargo executives have denied Feuer's allegations and said the bank's sales culture is not "overbearing." The bank has fired workers who opened fraudulent accounts or participated in other unethical practices, but said such conduct is not widespread.

After reviewing the NELP report, which mentions the Times investigation and Feuer's suit, Wells Fargo spokeswoman Mary Eshet said the bank's sales goals are achievable and that the bank is focused on providing consumers "with only the products and services they want and value."

Other banks are cited in the report, including Bank of America, SunTrust and U.S. Bank. Representatives of those institutions declined to comment.

Christman said her interviews with bank workers showed that sales tactics varied from bank to bank, and even from branch to branch. But the report concluded that pressure to open more accounts is widespread and that workers feel compelled to sell new products to customers, regardless of whether they need them.

The report quotes a Bank of America employee – who, like all bank workers who were quoted in the report, was unnamed – in Rhode Island who commonly encouraged customers to get new credit card accounts.

"If someone's getting married, tell them to get a credit card," the employee said. "Any life event that happened, you were supposed to say, 'Get a credit card for it.' If you heard kids in the background, the answer was a credit card."

The report details some of the techniques that bank workers use to meet sales goals, including opening additional accounts without customers' knowledge or without properly completed paperwork. Other alleged practices including opening accounts for family members and closing then reopening accounts so they appear new.

A Florida bank teller quoted in the report said she opened a credit card for her sister, who quickly racked up debt on the card.

"She maxed it out, and she still has that maxed-out credit card 10 years later," the teller said.

The report also describes the stress that sales quotas put on bank workers, recounting complaints about harassment from managers and fear that failing to meet quotas will result in being fired.

"You could be subjected to ridicule for not meeting goals," one worker said.

Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, Va., said the kinds of complaints covered in the report are not surprising, noting that workers have grumbled about sales quotas for as long as quotas have existed.

"In banking, there certainly has been longstanding pressure to make loans, to bring in more business," Ely said. "Employees whose performance and pay are being judged oftentimes don't like it. But there's nothing unique to banking in this regard."

But Christman argues that selling banking accounts and other financial products is different, with sales quotas putting bank employees in the position of selling potentially harmful products such as credit cards to unwitting consumers.

What's more, Christman said, customers expect bank employees to understand the products they're selling and to provide sound advice – expectations consumers might not have for other salespeople.

"I don't expect a grocery store worker to be an expert on nutrition," Christman said. "In banking, there's a higher level of expectation. The stakes are higher with a checking account than with a banana."

Twitter: @jrkoren

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