Saturday, October 1, 2016

Thank You Wells Fargo...For Reminding Us of the Nature of the Employment Relationship

The biggest business story of the past month has been the Wells Fargo banking scandal. Driven by pressures to sell banking customers additional products, thousands of employees created perhaps two millions new accounts without customer approval. Over 5,000 workers were fired for creating fraudulent accounts, and some who were fired for failing to meet sales goals are suing Wells Fargo for wrongful termination. One lawsuit alleges that “The managers and bankers routinely harassed and pressured [the plaintiff] and she was denied promotions and bonuses because she would not engage in the unethical and fraudulent banking practices for unethical quotas.” 

This unfortunate mess raises many problematic issues, such as ineffective regulators, unrealistic pressures for unending corporate financial and stock returns, predatory corporate culture, leadership failings, and the danger of incentives (from stock incentives at the top, to managerial bonuses in the middle, down to the incentive to simply keep one’s job as a teller at the bottom of the banking organizational chart). And we shouldn't overlook the personal distress experienced by individual employees ("Wells Fargo's insatiable greed made me a monster," StarTribune, Sept 30, 2016). But I want to thank Wells Fargo for reminding us of the nature of the employment relationship.  

The debate over the nature of the employment relationship is as old as modern capitalism itself. Adam Smith’s model of self-interested employees and employers trading as equals in markets guided by the invisible hand continues today as the intellectual foundation of neoliberalism. I have called this the “egoist” employment relationship because of its emphasis on individual self-interest and personal responsibility. In order for this to work effectively for employers and employees, labor markets must be ideally competitive, not destructively competitive. This requires employees to have reasonable alternatives that are accessible without excessive switching costs, both economic (e.g., moving costs) and psychological (e.g., stress over the uncertainties of the nature of a new job, or a bias towards over-valuing what you already possess). In this way, if someone doesn’t like their pay, working conditions, or other elements of their job, they can legitimately quit and get another decent job commensurate with their skills and abilities. Minimal institutional supports like unions or protective labor legislative are not needed because competitive markets protect workers from abuse; indeed, they are bad if they interfere with the ideal discipline of the invisible hand.

The Wells Fargo fiasco seemingly rejects the accuracy of this way of thinking. Workers clearly didn’t feel that they could simply quit and find a comparable job. Instead, over 5,000 succumbed to corporate pressure to meet unrealistic targets, and thereby acted unethically by creating fake accounts to keep their jobs. Competitive labor markets also require potential employees to have good information about the nature of jobs, and one can question whether employees joining Wells Fargo fully understood these pressures. And competitive consumer markets require well-informed consumers, which also doesn’t appear to the case here. For example, many customers with potentially fraudulent accounts couldn’t remember whether they had requested them or not. The neoliberal or egoist model of the employment is an important theoretical baseline, but seemingly too idealistic for the messiness of real-world markets, human behavior, and therefore, employment relationships.

An alternative to the neoliberal or egoist way of thinking is the unitarist model of the employment relationship. Ideally competitive labor markets are not required, but this approach critically rests on a belief that the interests of employers and employees are largely one and the same (unitarist = unity of interests). Or more precisely, a belief that well-designed managerial policies and practices can always be found that align the interests of workers and their employers. For example, offering decent pay and benefits will create engaged, loyal workers who reward the employer with high levels of performance that serve the business and its customers. Minimal institutional supports like unions or protective labor legislative are unnecessary because companies will create win-win human resource management policies. The Wells Fargo fiasco seemingly rejects the accuracy of this way of thinking, too. Performance standards were unrealistic and incentives at various points of the corporate hierarchy were extreme. Ethical workers were fired; customers were harmed. And these problems were not self-corrected or policed internally. Rather, these practices were exposed by the Los Angeles Times which then resulted in a lawsuit against Wells Fargo by the Los Angeles city attorney.

This isn’t to say that high-commitment forms of human resource management (“high road” HRM) are a failed project. Well-designed HRM policies and practices are essential for any organization, and we need more HR leaders with sophisticated ways of thinking (like one gets with a Minnesota Master’s degree in HRIR!). But it is to say that as a society, we cannot rely solely on corporate self-interest and well-intentioned managers.

Which brings me to the pluralist employment relationship model. The pluralist model rejects the neoliberal assumption of ideally competitive labor markets, and again, the Wells Fargo scandal highlights why. Moreover, the pluralist model embraces a plurality of legitimate interest in the employment relationship. Yes, there are some interests that employers and employees have in common, but unlike the unitarist way of thinking, pluralists believe that there are also conflicts of interests. But both employer and employee interests are legitimate so none should be exclusively prioritized over others (akin to a pluralist democracy in the political sphere). HRM practices are important for aligning shared interests, but society should not rely exclusively on corporate self-interest to look out for workers. When times are tough or there are excessively strong pressures for financial returns, some companies favor their own interests at the expense of employees. This seems to me to be a better characterization of what happened at Wells Fargo than the other two models of the employment relationship can provide. And consequently, Wells Fargo employees have turned to the courts for relief. In other situations, they might turn to labor unions or other outside, institutional supports. In whatever form, institutional supports for employees, independent of the vagaries or markets or enlightenment of managers, are needed.

In conclusion, how we think the employment relationship works is critically important for determining the extent to we as a society want to rely solely on markets or managers for setting employment terms and conditions. It’s difficult to truly gauge the actual nature of the employment relationship in practice. But we can look to situations like what’s unfolded at Wells Fargo for clues. Maybe it's just me, but I see another example that supports the accuracy of the pluralist model.


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  2. A proper allegory which help to understand the concept of legitimate competitive market economy as opposed to markets with unequal/unbalanced competition on one hand and on the other the unitarist and pluralist models in HR management. Quite insightful.

  3. Great article! When I think you can't top the last article you do every time.

    1. Thank you for all of your nice comments on many of my blog posts. I'm glad you find them enjoyable and beneficial!

  4. Thank you, as this real life example is a very good summary of the lesson.

  5. This was a great way to connect what I am learning in the Coursera class to the real world.

  6. Wow...This course is so interesting. The article too.I think the US don't support just cause protection for her employees.. What in a case where a male manager tries to make advances on a lady and she refuses.If she got fired by the no protection?

  7. Very interesting article. I owe coursera

  8. be honourable at work and everything you do

  9. Managing people is not just about leadership but is also about wise policy design and implementation. Another perfect article where I relate / understand the meaning of your quote, Professor.