When it comes to whistleblowers, Wells Fargo hasn’t had a particularly good track record in recent years. In fact, some have described the workplace culture at the financial institution as troubled, one where the company goes out of its way to stymie and then retaliate against those trying to warn of illegal or fraudulent conduct.
Investigations have revealed that many have been fired as a result of coming forward, creating a terrible disincentive for others to do the same. Thankfully, there’s been a glimmer of hope for those whistleblowers after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has indicated it intends to play a more active role defending the rights of those who were subjected to unfair retaliation.
Earlier this month, OSHA ordered Wells Fargo to rehire a whistleblower the bank had fired in 2010. In that case, the whistleblower had called into the company’s ethics hotline and voiced concern about suspected fraud. Despite the supposedly confidential nature of these phone calls, the workers’ manager took action and fired him as a result. OSHA came down firmly on the worker’s side, ordering the company to pay the former manager more than $5.4 million in back pay, damages and legal costs.
Only a week or so later, it was revealed that OSHA sent a letter to Wells Fargo explaining that there was reasonable cause to believe the company had violated anti-retaliation provisions in Sarbanes-Oxley and, as a result, OSHA was considering the preliminary reinstatement of a former general manager, Claudia Ponce de Leon. Claudia had been GM at a branch in California when, in June and July of 2011 she reported concerns she had that employees were opening fake accounts. She then escalated these concerns, raising them to her new district manager, to HR and, finally, in September of 2011, by placing a call to the company’s ethics hotline.
Only a few weeks after that call, Claudia was brought into the office on her day off and told she was being terminated. The company has since claimed that her firing had nothing to do with raising concerns about the fake accounts, but was instead performance related. OSHA appears to disagree, noting that the only performance issue Wells Fargo was able to identify was that in October 2010 an employee filed a complaint claiming that Claudia had too much to drink over lunch. The problem is this employee had been reprimanded by Claudia the day before, casting doubt on the veracity of the complaint.
These two incidents, though especially terrible, are not unique. Previous reports have identified at least a half-dozen Wells Fargo workers who were fired after making calls to the company’s ethics complaint line. Wells Fargo itself has admitted there may be a problem, saying that internal investigations revealed that at least some of the complaints regarding retaliation may indeed have merit. Though it’s no comfort to those who have already been victimized by the company, it may be that future whistleblowers have less reason to fear retaliation. By defending those who have had the strength to come forward, the government is sending a powerful message to Wells Fargo and other companies that such conduct will not be tolerated in the future.
Source: “Wells Fargo's Whistleblower Problem Worsens,” published at Money.CNN.com by Matt Egan on April 6, 2017.
Source: “Feds Order Wells Fargo to Rehire Whistle-blower and Pay Him $5.4 Million,” published at LATimes.com by James Rufus Koren on April 3, 2017.