Banking on the Hard Sell: Low Wages and Aggressive Sales Metrics Put Bank Workers and Customers at Risk

Executive Summary

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, regulators reined in damaging bank practices like those concerning mortgages and launched investigations of others such as overdraft fees. These new rules diminished the income streams from these practices. However, big banks continue to implement practices and policies that hurt customers and boost profits. Among these lucrative practices is the use of aggressive sales metrics and incentives programs to encourage front-line workers to push multiple banking “solutions,” or products, on often unwitting customers. As each product comes with its own set of rules and fees, customers’ financial standing can be damaged and their credit rating destroyed, and they can spend years paying for products they didn’t really need. At the same time, workers laboring under these onerous quota systems experience hostile work conditions, excessive stress, and uncertain incomes that make caring for themselves and their families nearly impossible.

Banking on the Hard Sell incorporates information gleaned from class action lawsuits, landscape literature on banking practices, and interviews with dozens of workers employed by numerous banks in many positions to investigate the dangers of aggressive sales metrics to customers and workers alike. We find that workers suffer harassment and threats in order to make ever-changing over-aggressive quotas, and that low base wages mean they need to put their own financial interests above those of the customers. We note that at least one large U.S. bank, Amalgamated, does not use these types of quotas and that in other countries, agreements between bank workers and their employers ensure decent quality jobs and banking practices that put the customer first.

Key Findings

  • Even six years after launching new consumer protections, the number of complaints to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) concerning “Bank Account or Services” and “Debt Collection” continue to rise.
  • Fees and service charges on deposit accounts, credit cards, and other products accounted for more than a quarter of revenues at one big bank, Wells Fargo, while “Commission and Incentive Compensation” expenses totaled only half of that windfall, meaning that the employees who sell the products that bring in millions of dollars for their employer reap less than half the reward, with the banks pocketing the rest.
  • Workers speak out:
    • A Maryland SunTrust worker says that “the goals are constantly shifting. If you don’t hit your goal, it goes up 5 percent. If you do hit your goal, it goes up 10-15 percent.”
    • A California teller recalled, “God forbid you went home without solutions. You could be subjected to ridicule for not meeting goals.”
    • Several workers note that managers would look the other way when documentation verifying identity was lacking or when forms were turned in signed but not filled in.
    • Another worker with experience at both SunTrust and Bank of America recalled, “Managers really pushed me to ignore it when consumers say no.”
    • One Minnesota U.S. Bank collections worker said, “There was a constant battle of how you do right for the customer without sacrificing, you know, not paying a light bill or having shoes for the kids going back to school. You can’t make that sacrifice.”
  • Banks in other countries—often the same banks that operate in the United States—work with bank workers to establish codes of conduct regarding sales quotas that ensure business success while still protecting customers and ensuring decent working conditions.

Related to

About the Author

Anastasia Christman

Areas of expertise:
  • Climate Justice,
  • Policy Analysis,
  • Procurement Policy,
  • Research,
  • Worker Organizing