Monday, February 9, 2009

Watch Your Language: A Case Study of the Wells Fargo Communications Controversy

On Sunday, February 8, 2009, Wells Fargo ran full-page newspaper ads across the United States headlined: “The value of team member recognition.”

This defensive gesture follows their controversial decision to reward a number of high performing employees with a trip to Las Vegas, including special events and helicopter rides. There was a firestorm of criticism, nationwide, because Wells Fargo is the recipient of bailout funds from U.S. taxpayers. There are lessons here, for every business, about dealing with self-inflicted, bad visibility.

What Wells Fargo said (in their ad):
  • All employers should evaluate how they spend money on employee recognition, especially if they have taken taxpayer money in the bailout.
  • Media stories on employee recognition programs (like ours, sending employees to Las Vegas for a few days of gambling and relaxation) were deliberately misleading and one-sided.
  • The media erroneously call these activities junkets, boondoggles, and waste, only for highly paid executives.
  • Media misrepresentations have forced Wells Fargo to cancel all its major annual recognition events for the 2009.
  • Our decision especially hurts those team members who worked long hours to provide good service.
  • Other losers are the service workers employed to carry out these programs at hotels, restaurants, and airlines.
  • The money comes from profits, not the bailout.
  • Recognition spurs competition among employees to perform better. That’s a good thing.
  • Since we’ve cancelled the face to face events, this ad will have to be our thank you to employees.

What Wells Fargo meant:

  • We don’t see any issue with our behavior, but our PR people told us it didn’t look good.
  • Generally, we are pretty good at these kinds of events. They’re fun, splashy and, hopefully, one ups our competitors. HR likes them.
  • These events showcase senior executives doing something nice, for a change, in front of employees. What’s wrong with that?
  • These events give employees something other than the current mess and embarrassments to talk and think about for a short while.
  • Maybe those anti-banking reporters and editorialists who are making such a stink will think twice next time. This will show them.
  • Why can’t Americans appreciate how tough this job is and what we sacrifice to serve them every day?
  • We just don’t get it.

What Wells Fargo should have said:

  • First of all, we are very sorry for what we should have recognized was a really dumb idea from the start.
  • When our customers are suffering, our role is to share their pain.
  • When our customers are paying for our lunch, we owe them special sensitivity to what we actually do, including the appearance of what we do.
  • Our decision called into question management’s common sense and connection to what their employees and most Americans are feeling right now, every day.
  • We greatly agitated and irritated our employees who are already scared and worried about their own futures.
  • We believe firmly in the importance of recognizing outstanding performance. It is motivating. It helps employees cope; especially now when times are so tense, stress grows every day and everyone is worried about so many things in their lives, including their jobs, homes and retirement.
  • We’ve done some serious soul searching and have come up with a different way to recognize our employees.

Employee Recognition

  • The events and splashy stuff are definitely gone, as they should have been from the start.
  • After holding exploratory conversations with just 3% of our employees, it was immediately and overwhelmingly obvious that employees preferred low-key localized recognition events.
  • Having dinners, lunches or even simple events in important local spaces was suggested. For example, rent a local elementary, middle school or high school cafeteria, or a train station lobby, local library or the common areas of other public buildings. Local college campuses would also work. These facilities can use the rental income and perhaps the visibility.
  • Use simpler, private, personal hand-written notes of recognition.
  • All employee comments are on the Website for those who care to review them.

From now on our recognition processes will have to pass four tests. This approach will prevent what happened this year from ever happening again.

  1. Can we afford it?
  2. Are they simple, sensible, and in proportion to what was accomplished or expected?
  3. Is the recognition process part of an ongoing individual evaluation strategy rather than just a single big PR burst once a year?
  4. Is the entire effort geared to truly recognize individual employees and teams rather than a black tie boost for executives? Is it largely run by employees rather than the managers?

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