Day by day, new memos arrive “announcing changes.” The changes sometimes reorganize a team. Some announce that certain employees will be “seeking new opportunities.”
Across the behemoth workforce of Wells Fargo, CEO Charlie Scharf’s drive to cut $10 billion in expenses at the bank often criticized for its bloat and inefficiency has set off anxiety and panic among its workforce. Many at the bank feel they are in the dark about what’s going on.
How many people will be laid off? They don’t know, and the bank won’t say. There is no firm timetable for the layoffs, but the bank said $3.7 billion in cuts will come in 2021.
Are you in jeopardy if you work in San Francisco? Minnesota? Charlotte? Hard to tell.
These are natural questions most employees ask when confronted with coming layoffs. Yet, the way that Wells Fargo is going about its cost-cutting drive, without firm targets, is making things worse, some workers say.
“We completely understand and empathize with the uncertainty that it creates and understand that it impacts morale,” Scharf said in an October internal webcast obtained by the Observer. “The last thing that I want to do is create uncertainty for someone who has given so much to this company.”
Wells Fargo has not said how many layoffs it expects. Employees in divisions across the bank don’t seem to know either.
Workers pass around rumors of doomsday dates when the ax is supposed to drop. Most are just rumors. Some days lots of memos come. Some days none at all.
Other changes at the bank have only built the pressure. All together, anxiety is rampant at Wells Fargo, nearly a dozen current employees told the Observer. They requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss internal developments with the press.
All the company will say is it expects to reduce the workforce through a combination of attrition, eliminating open positions and “job displacements.”
“We are at the beginning of a multiyear effort to build a stronger and more nimble, customer-focused company,” Wells Fargo spokesman Peter Gilchrist said.
In the fourth quarter, head count fell by 6,482 in consumer banking, which was the most of any division. That includes the bank’s sprawling network of more than 5,000 branches, which it has been paring back.
In commercial banking, head count fell by 1,681, and in wealth management, it fell by 714. Investment banking was generally unaffected by cuts.
Overall employment at the end of the year was 268,531.
Wells Fargo, with about 150 branches in the state, is the second-largest bank in Minnesota based on market share behind U.S. Bancorp. It also is a top 10 private employer in the state.
On a call with reporters, Wells Fargo’s new chief financial officer, Mike Santomassimo, declined to say what an ideal head count would be at the end of the current cost-cutting drive.
The shroud of secrecy around the layoff number is unusual. It’s more common for big corporations to announce a big number of cuts, then deliver on that number.
“In a classic restructuring, you basically do it in one fell swoop and move on. Because the worst thing for a business is people asking, ‘Will I be laid off next?’ ” said Charles Elson, finance professor at the University of Delaware and a Wells Fargo shareholder.
In December 2008, at the depth of the financial crisis, Bank of America said in a single announcement it would cut 30,000 to 35,000 jobs over the next three years. It was one of the biggest layoffs in banking history — more workers than had worked at Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse. In July of that year, Wachovia announced it would cut 10,750 jobs.
“The danger of a stop-and-start stream of layoffs is that it builds a climate of anxiety in the workforce,” Elson said.
The employees who talked to the Observer agreed that the bank is bloated and that cuts need to happen. They just wish there was a communicated plan.
Wells Fargo’s workforce is more than 50,000 higher than Bank of America’s. However, Bank of America has 40% more money in it.
After Scharf took over as CEO in October 2019, he did some simple math. He looked at how much the bank was spending vs. how much it took in. From that, he said the bank needed to cut $10 billion in yearly expenses to get in line with its peers.
In January, the bank revealed it had identified $8 billion of the cuts already.
Most of the money the bank plans to save will come from having fewer workers. According to a Wells Fargo earnings presentation, over a third of the savings the bank has already identified so far will come from streamlining the bank’s sprawling bureaucracy, mandating that managers have more direct reports. This process of thinning middle management already is underway.
Wells Fargo also plans to close another 250 branches in 2021, after closing 329 in 2020.
Money will also be saved through digitization and selling off parts of the bank that the bank sees as extraneous, like its private student loan portfolio and rail business. Outside spending on consultants is getting cut, too.
So far, Wells Fargo has set aside about $1.5 billion on restructuring, most of which the bank said is for severance payments.
Nick Weiner, the lead organizer at the Committee for Better Banks, which is trying to unionize the bank, said the lack of information on layoffs is the biggest issue for works. But on top of that, internal employee reviews were revamped under Scharf so it’s much harder to be considered a top-tier employee.