Doris Easley has been banking at a U.S. Bank branch in suburban Nashville for years and is certain she can count on employees there to help her through a financial pinch.
She was alarmed when she heard that the company last month fired two workers at an Oregon call center who, in violation of a bank rule, helped a customer outside the premises on Christmas Eve. The customer's paycheck from a new company was held up in the bank's verification process and one of the workers met him at a gas station with $20 of her own cash to get him by.
"I hope something will happen that these people will not lose their jobs because I guarantee you that, if I had a transaction that was held up, I have two or three friends at the bank who would come and help me," Easley said.
By this weekend, it looked like they were getting their jobs back.
The firings spilled into the open when one of the employees told an Oregon newspaper about it. Last weekend, a New York Times columnist picked up on the episode and called it an example of "how some companies have lost their souls."
That led Andy Cecere, the chief executive of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, to get in touch with both of the fired workers and issue a statement saying the episode "does not reflect who we are as a company."
One of the fired workers, Abigail Gilbert, agreed to return to her supervisory role in the call center. The other, Emily James, who met the customer, was considering a new job that would help U.S. Bank improve customer service.
This weekend, the company planned to issue a statement that said, "U.S. Bank fell short of our and others' expectations and we sincerely apologize."
In an interview Friday, Cecere said, "This has shown me we have some larger issues we need to, as a team, examine and improve upon."
He said there are reasons for policies that set parameters around where and how employees interact with customers.
"But at the same time, I recognize we need at times to be more flexible and we have to understand the circumstances that are coming out," Cecere said. "I want to learn from this and get better. We can create circumstances and flexibility to empower the employee to put the customer first in terms of the way we act in situations that are a little more challenging or uncertain."
Usually a low-key bank
The episode marked a rare trip into the national spotlight for U.S. Bank. Though it is the nation's fifth-largest bank with a logo that tops skyscrapers in several cities and a stadium in downtown Minneapolis, U.S. Bank's national reputation is low key. Critics directed relatively less anger at it than other banks after the 2008 financial crisis. Like most banks, it relies on philanthropy and performance on the ethics measures of third parties to burnish its image.
But having a relatively ordinary labor decision thrust into the glare of social media and hot-take commenters forced U.S. Bank to confront the gray line between applying rules and using common sense. It immediately led the company to bend its policy of not talking publicly about employee matters.
And it happened at a complicated moment for the company and its employees. U.S. Bank is cutting both the number of its branches and jobs throughout all branches to adjust to customers who are increasingly turning to digital-banking services, some of which are supported by call-center workers like those in Oregon.
As well, the future of banks is an issue in the Democratic presidential primary, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren proposing new restrictions on the industry. Some analysts speculate that more banks will merge this year if Sanders or Warren appear likely to become the nominee or win the presidency.
In his column on the firings, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times gave a nod to the political stakes by asserting that hypocrisy at large companies is a reason "young Americans say in polls that they react more positively to 'socialism' than to 'capitalism.' "
Jiao Luo, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management who researches corporate reputation strategies, said the incident will require U.S. Bank to lean heavily on the goodwill it has built up over the years — and protect it.
"Trust is something that's so fragile, especially with the backdrop of the generally low level of trust of banks," she said.
The company will likely change the way it enforces rules, Luo said, and she suggested an avenue for appeal and discussion will need to be formed. For an employee to rely on the media or external pressure, Luo said, "seems to be an extremely costly way to generate flexibility in the rules."
Cecere said the company will create an appeals process, though the form is still to be worked out.
"We are going to learn from this and do better," he said.
Every minute accounted for
Call centers at any business tend to be structured with many rules that employees must strictly follow. They exist to simplify entry to jobs that turn over frequently and to allow precise measurements of employees' work.
"Every minute of an agent's day is accounted for, every phone call recorded, every interaction can be reviewed," said Paul Stockford, an industry analyst at Saddletree Research in Scottsdale, Ariz. In the U.S. Bank case, he added, "It wouldn't surprise me if that wasn't some rule that got set down somewhere and just glossed over on the first day of work."
For the past several years, managers of call centers have been under pressure to ease up and give workers more flexibility. "There's really good data on how a lot of contact centers are dealing with a different attitude in the workforce," Stockford said. "Things are going to be turned on their ear in the industry."
To many observers, the U.S. Bank episode is simply a sign of how big companies develop policies to cope with size and create consistency, then lean on them to the point of stifling good work and creativity.
"It's so toxic to a culture. People don't take risks anymore," said Troy Selland, a former Northwest Airlines executive who later worked for smaller airlines and is now a consultant. "It's hard for me to see that. You say, 'Where did common sense go?' "
Easley, the U.S. Bank customer in Tennessee, said an assistant branch manager and some tellers helped her cope and manage affairs after her mother's death last year. She said she feels certain any of them would drive to a gas station with $20 if she needed it.
"That's the kind of relationship I want with my bank and anybody would want with their bank," she said.
Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241