Wells Fargo was in the news again, and, once again, the news about the banking and investment brand was not good. Employees were publicly accused of “misusing funds,” so there was no choice for the company but to act fast and be decisive. So, soon after headlines started coming out about Wells Fargo employees “misusing” coronavirus relief funds, follow-up stories reported that at least 100 of those accused employees had been summarily fired.
According to media reports, the bank “believes some of its staffers made false representations in applying for coronavirus relief funds…” The bank’s PR statement made certain that reporters knew this alleged “misuse” was made by the employees for their own personal gain and not that of the bank.
These employees — as private citizens, the bank insisted to media representatives — have been accused of “defrauding the US Small Business Administration. This admission came in a statement to the media by Wells Fargo head of Human Resources, David Galloreese. The statement went on to describe that these employees — now-former employees — made decisions that were “outside the employees’ roles at the bank” and that “These wrongful actions were personal and do not involve our customers…”
Of course, this statement is a preventative PR message that Wells Fargo needs to get out for public consumption due to a string of very well-publicized previous PR disasters involving actions by bank employees that did involve both customers and the employee’s jobs at the bank. This context made it a given that Wells Fargo would have to respond to questions about the allegations, even though it appears the company did not encourage or take any part in this particular malfeasance.
Wells Fargo is not the only financial institution to have taken similar actions in a similar situation. A few weeks prior to Wells Fargo’s public firings, JP Morgan Chase reportedly “dismissed several employees” due to similar allegations of “misusing” emergency relief funds that had been earmarked to help businesses that were hurting due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Established and breakout brands in the financial sector are in a unique position, especially when it comes to maintaining public trust. Consumers are paying attention to the way bank brands are working and being portrayed in the public eye, especially after the multiple Wells Fargo “fraud scandals.” Any whiff of public scandal or employee-involved malfeasance and the brands’ PR teams need to get out in front of the narrative fast. They need to be seen taking action, not just talking about action, and so they did.
In publicly firing employees who could be perceived by the consumer and investor public as “dishonest” or “self-interested,” Wells Fargo and JP Morgan distanced their brands from any potential negative assumptions made by their customers or prospects.