Killing Kindness with Corporate Blindness

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from an OpEd in The New York Times, February 1, 2020.  Leave it to Nick Kristof to make us aware of corporate indifference.

By Nicholas Kristof

To understand how some companies have lost their souls, consider what happened after U.S. Bank stiffed a customer before Christmas.

An individual had deposited a $1,080 paycheck into his account at U.S. Bank. The bank put a hold on most of the sum, and he spent many hours in a branch office over two days, trying to get access to the money so he could buy presents for his 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

On Christmas Eve, he found himself parked at a gas station in Clackamas, Ore., a Portland suburb, both his fuel gauge and his bank balance on empty. A bank employee had told him that money would soon show up in his account—perhaps a ruse to get him out of the branch office. For hours the man then tried his debit card at the gas pump, so he could buy a few gallons and get home to his wife and children.

“I was stranded,” he told me. “I could have walked home, but it would have been five miles in the cold.”

That’s when he found an angel.

He telephoned the bank’s toll-free number and spoke with a senior officer at a call center in Portland. She spent an hour on the phone with him, trying to get some money released so he could at least get home. She soon realized that he had been misled, and that money wouldn’t reach his account any time soon. Feeling bad for a customer stuck on Christmas Eve, she offered to drive over from her call center and personally hand him $20.

“No, no, no,” he told her. He couldn’t impose. But she suggested she could use her break, and she received permission from a supervisor to drive 20 minutes to him. She later recalled that when she arrived, she wished him Merry Christmas and handed him $20 of her own money.

When U.S. Bank found out that it had such a generous employee, what did it do? It fired her.

When U.S. Bank found out that it had such a generous employee, what did it do? It fired her.

“She broke the rules, putting herself and the bank at unnecessary risk,” U.S. Bank said in a statement. The company bars call center workers from meeting customers, so it dismissed both her and the manager who had approved her trip. The manager told me that the call center worker’s account was essentially correct.

She had worked at the bank since 2017 and had received numerous commendations and awards that I examined, but the bank paid her no severance. She is single and used her last paycheck to buy sacks of food for her two dogs. She is now reduced to selling blood plasma, at $25 a visit.

The man who received her largesse is horrified at what happened. “I was lied to and treated like dirt” by the bank, he said, and he can’t understand why the bank axed the one employee who was helpful. “I felt really bad,” he told me. “How could she get fired?”

U.S. Bank’s vision statement boasts: “Our employees are empowered to do the right thing.” So I tried to ask the company’s C.E.O., Andrew Cecere, why the bank fired an employee who, with permission, rescued a frustrated customer on Christmas Eve.

[CEO] Cecere wouldn’t return my calls…. Update: after this article went online, I had a contrite phone call from Cecere…. “I will fix this,” he told me.

Cecere wouldn’t return my calls. A bank spokesman told me that an internal “investigation” had concluded that the employee misled her manager to get permission, that she could have found other ways to get money to the man, that the $20 came from the manager (which the manager confirmed) and that she previously had disciplinary “issues.” I found the bank’s “investigation” a whitewash and its explanations to be incoherent, mean-spirited and contradicted by a series of internal bank messages that I reviewed.

The bottom line is this: Cecere, who was paid $14.1 million in 2018, presides over a company that has smeared a much-decorated employee who helped a customer and as a result survives by selling blood plasma. I suggest Cecere apologize, reinstate the employee and promote her; he might also show contrition by selling his own blood plasma and donating the proceeds to a charity of her choosing.

When young Americans say in polls that they react more positively to “socialism” than to “capitalism,” it’s because of the hypocrisy of institutions like U.S. Bank.

I’ve often noted that companies have enormous capacity to help their communities. But too often they act like American tobacco companies, which killed more people than Stalin did, or pharma companies peddling opioids, or McKinsey & Company advising a business to “get more patients on higher doses of opioids,” or Boeing mocking regulators. That’s one reason to seek stronger private-sector labor unions: At least unions and corporations can then provide some check on each other.

Update: On Saturday evening, after this article went online, I had a contrite phone call from Andrew Cecere, the C.E.O. of U.S. Bank. “This is not who we are,” he said. He added that companies sometimes make mistakes, and that he accepted ownership of what went wrong. He also telephoned the call center employee and expressed concern for her and for her supervisor. “I will fix this,” he told me.

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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