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Are 'good egg' employees the real victims in Wells Fargo fraud scandal? (+video)

A class action lawsuit alleges that Wells Fargo penalized employees who failed to meet 'unrealistic quotas,' while rewarding employees who engaged in fraud to achieve company goals.

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    Wells Fargo chief executive officer John Stumpf testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, before Senate Banking Committee. Two former employees are now suing the company for unlawful business practices and wage theft.
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In the wake of a high-profile sales abuse scandal, two former Wells Fargo employees are filing a $2.6-billion class action lawsuit against the bank.

The suit alleges that Wells Fargo penalized employees who failed to meet “unrealistic quotas,” while rewarding employees who engaged in fraud to achieve company goals. Anyone who has worked for Wells Fargo in California over the last 10 years, as well as current employees, would be eligible to claim part of that settlement.

The lawsuit also brings a largely-ignored party to the forefront: the "good egg" employees who didn’t resort to fraud to meet quotas. It’s this group, the suit claims, that may have been hurt the most by Wells Fargo’s alleged culture of cutting corners.

Wells Fargo agreed to pay a $185-million settlement earlier this month amid revelations of major sales abuse. Many employees, in an effort to pad their accounts and earn financial incentives, had signed up unwitting customers for fake credit cards and bank accounts. In the aftermath, the bank purged some 5,300 low-level workers.

But the culture that created the scandal likely began in Wells Fargo’s executive offices, say former employees and members of Congress.

During an investigation by the Senate Banking Committee, several members criticized Wells Fargo chief executive officer John Stumpf for passing the buck to low-paid employees. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren argued that executives intentionally used financial incentives to force employees to cut legal corners.

“This isn't the work of 5,300 bad apples, this is the work of sowing seeds that poisoned the orchard,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey. “You and your executives created an environment that allowed for this behavior.”

Alexander Polonsky and Brian Zaghi, the two former employees who filed the class action suit, say Wells Fargo pushed workers to open 10 accounts per day and submit progress reports every few hours. Many employees took unpaid overtime, or even worked off the clock to meet sales quotas. Those who couldn’t were penalized or fired.

“Wells Fargo knew that their unreasonable quotas were driving these unethical behaviors that were used to fraudulently increase their stock price and benefit the CEO at the expense of the low level employees,” the lawsuit alleges.

Overwork is a significant issue in the high-stress world of banking. In 2013, a Bank of America intern died after allegedly working 72 straight hours. But new research suggests that the problem doesn’t stop there. In general, Americans work more hours than people in almost every other leading industrial nation. In the US, full-time employees work an average of 47 hours per week, and nearly 4 in 10 work more than 50.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

For many employees, it can feel like a lose-lose scenario. Those who engage in fraud to meet impossible company goals can expect swift termination once any illegal activity surfaces. But those who hold fast to ethical standards are also victimized by the culture of overwork – those ‘good eggs’ are saddled with workplace anxiety, lost wages and termination.

“[F]inancial incentive programs, if not monitored carefully, carry serious risks that can have serious legal consequences,” Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement. “Wells Fargo built an incentive-compensation program that made it possible for its employees to pursue underhanded sales practices, and it appears that the bank did not monitor the program carefully.”

This report includes material from Reuters.

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