When news of the Wells Fargo scandal broke in September, the crushing anxiety that Angie Payden experienced as a banker there three years ago came rushing back.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I felt like my heart was just going to like break through my chest. I almost took myself to the ER because I thought this is not normal.”
As a Wells Fargo banker, Payden told Business Insider she had “impossible” sales goals to reach. As with other Wells Fargo employees have shared, she said she was expected to open as many accounts as possible for customers.
In all, the company estimates its employees opened as many as 2 million accounts without customers’ knowledge. Yet Payden says there were likely many more accounts that customers knew about but were pressured into opening unnecessarily.
Richele Messick, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, told Business Insider that if this were the case, it would have to be determined on an individual basis. She said the company set up a hotline for customers to call if they have questions.
“If a customer at any point doesn’t want an account that they have, or they opened an account that they found out that they really don’t have a use for, we will absolutely close those accounts,” Messick said. “We only want our customers to have the accounts that they want and they value.”
Wells Fargo reached a $185 million settlement with regulators in September, and CEO John Stumpf left the company in October. Tim Sloan, the new CEO, had a meeting with employees on October 25 to address the scandal and how the company is trying to fix it.
“I want to apologise to all of you. I want to say we’re sorry for the pain you have experienced as team members as a result of our company’s failures,” Sloan said. “Things went wrong. Problems need to be fixed. Customers and team members were harmed and need to be cared for. And a better and stronger Wells Fargo must emerge out of all of this.”
‘That’s where the mindset becomes disgusting’
Payden wrote about her experience in a Facebook post in September that was published by The New York Times. Business Insider followed up with her, and she told us more about how she inflicted pain on herself as a way of dealing with the stress.
As a recovering alcoholic when she started at Wells Fargo in June 2011, the pressure of having to hit sales targets was too much. The branch Payden worked for, in Hudson, Wisconsin, was a community bank in a small town, so there weren’t that many new customers to yield new accounts.
“I pulled myself into that trap — sitting there doing things that I didn’t agree with because I felt like I didn’t have a choice. Then I started to get these panic attacks, which I never had before,” she said. “When you’re going through a panic attack, you don’t quite know what to do. After a couple times, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I looked at the hand sanitizer in the bathroom, and I thought, this has alcohol in it. This may work. And it did.”
I looked at the hand sanitizer in the bathroom and I thought, this has alcohol in it. This may work.
The goal passed down from corporate, she remembers, was to get every customer to open eight products — credit cards, savings, checking, mortgages, loans, CDs. This mindset pitted bankers against one another, Payden said, because everyone had quotas.
It resulted in worse customer service, she said, because the practice pushed bankers to focus on new customers, since they had more opportunity for opening new accounts.
“If somebody comes to the bank every day … here’s the problem — I don’t want to help that person. I can’t afford to have that person in my office for an hour, because I will not get anything off of them,” Payden said. “That’s where the mindset becomes disgusting.”
Payden’s experience may be more extreme than most, but it’s one example of the stress that Wells Fargo’s 100,000 employees in 6,000 bank branches across the country may have felt in a culture that revolved around hitting “ridiculous” sales goals.
Echoing Payden’s concerns, Kelly Sorensen, who worked at the Hudson Wells Fargo for six years, said customers complained “every day” about account solicitation or fees they didn’t want to pay on products they had. She said she probably dealt with the stress by having a “bad attitude” at work, before she quit in August 2014 because she “couldn’t take it anymore.”
“There wasn’t a whole lot I could do,” Sorensen told Business Insider. “It was a just crappy situation to go into every morning, knowing that you’re going to go into work and you’re going to not hit your numbers. And if you don’t, you’re going to get scolded from the manager, and from the district manager, going higher up and higher up.”
Wells Fargo announced in late September that it would eliminate all product sales goals in retail banking on October 1.
Self-harming to handle the stress
Payden wanted to make her family proud, and keeping her job was a huge part of that. She dealt with the stress by harming herself.
Eventually, Payden said she was drinking a bottle of hand sanitizer a day, even cutting underneath her fingernails to dip into the sanitizer to experience a similar effect.
Once that burn hit the back of my throat, my anxiety level would go way down.
“I would pump it into my mouth, and once that burn hit the back of my throat, my anxiety level would go way down … The way that your central nervous system works … your body then is not concentrating on your anxiety — it’s concentrating on the pain,” Payden said. “That’s the premise behind people who self-harm like myself …. When we self-harm, we at least get a momentary break from the anxiety … They’re not trying to cause pain. They’re trying to get out of pain.”
Research backs up Payden’s explanation. Studies have shown many people who injure themselves suppress the region of the brain linked with negative emotions when they feel pain.
In December 2012, she must have had too much. Sorensen said coworkers noticed Payden “wasn’t herself” and their manager sent her home. Payden’s husband found out, and later discovered a bottle of hand sanitizer in her briefcase. That’s when things unravelled.
She took a week’s vacation and tried to go back to work for a couple of weeks, but the stress was too much. She tried to kill herself on Wednesday, January 16, 2013.
Payden went on disability leave to get treatment at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. By September 2013, the insurance that she had through Wells Fargo denied covering any further disability pay. But Payden’s care team said she wasn’t ready to go back to work, and she officially left Wells Fargo.
Today, Payden has been sober for just over three years, and she says she is doing much better. But the Wells Fargo scandal news has caused some of those bad memories to return.
She said she thinks the whole culture at Wells Fargo needs to change.
“Honestly, I really want retribution for the customers,” she said. “That’s going to be difficult because it’s going to be really hard to identify which ones had products and services they didn’t need.”
Messick, the Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said the bank’s new leadership is trying to change the company culture. She mentioned a mystery shopper program where people will pose as customers to observe if employees have stopped trying to hit sales targets.
“I think the fact that we have ended all product-sales goals starting October 1 is a big step forward in making sure that these types of things never happen again, and that team members don’t feel this way, and that they feel supported,” Messick told Business Insider.
“There’s a lot that is going on to not just to restore customer trust, but also to make sure that our team members are not being pressured to sell products, and that they have what they need to focus on the customer and make sure the customer satisfaction is high.”
Payden lamented how banking is “off limits” to her now, but said she hopes her story will help other people struggling with mental-health issues.
“People can recover,” she said. “You can get that low and you can come out of it, no matter what you’ve got going on.”
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