Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wells Fargone

Wells Fargo recently took a lot of heat for its employee recognition events originally planned this year in Las Vegas. The Associated Press reported on February 3 that the bank, "...which received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, is planning a series of corporate junkets to Las Vegas casinos this month."

John Stumpf, president and CEO, immediately castigated AP for a misleading news story, claiming the events were not junkets for highly paid executives, but "recognition events" for front-line employees such as tellers, personal bankers, technology specialists, credit analysts and other "team members." The company at first defended its event schedule, but faced with a torrent of criticism from Congress, the blogosphere and the general public, eventually canceled its employee recognition events for the balance of this year.

On February8, Wells Fargo took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. In the ad, entitled "The Value of Team Member Recognition," Mr. Stumpf took a whiny tone in blaming the media for the event cancellations, saying that for many employees, it is "the only time in their lives that they're publicly recognized and thanked for a job well done." He went on the say that those employees and the hospitality industry workers were the real losers in this media-inspired outcry. He concluded, "Since we aren't thanking our award winners in person this year, we'll have to do it this way" -- that is, through the ad.

Subsequently, Times columnist Maureen Dowd characterized the Wells Fargo effort as an "inadvertently hilarious full-page ad...to whinge (sic) about the junkets to Las Vegas and elsewhere it was forced to cancel because of public outrage." As to Mr. Stumpf's claim that employee recognition events "energized employees," Ms. Dowd responded, "In this economy, simply having a job should energize them." She speculated that the ad, which may have cost the bank $200,000, might serve as a partial bailout for the newspaper industry.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, Mr. Stumpf should realize it's the perception of these events stacked next to the bailout money that counts. Second, why take out an ad that may have cost $200,000 ostensibly to thank employees? Couldn't Wells Fargo have been more creative? Maybe staging a video or even a virtual event, making use of some 21st Century technology? OK, it isn't Vegas, but with new means of connecting with people, you can do some neat things. The respected communications strategist David Henderson observed, "For any organization to buy a full-page in the NY Times reveals a lack of how people communicate in today's world." I agree. Think a little harder, guys -- maybe even some old-fashioned personal communications as well?

I believe bank (and other industry) employees should be recognized, particularly those that don't get the big bonuses. But this year, just having that job may have to do.

(Full disclosures: 1. My wife worked as a front-line bank employee for 14 years in retail credit (not at Wells Fargo). 2. I've worked with clients in the financial services industry for 30 years. 3. My home mortgage is with Wells Fargo, having originated at PNC and passing through WAMU on its way there. Hope they don't call the loan.)

Thanks to David Henderson for his insight. You'll find him at www.davidhenderson.com.

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