Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf blamed the company’s difficulty in reaching its diversity numbers on the lack of qualified Black talent. Not once, but twice. In a memo to the company’s associates about its diversity initiatives on June 18, Scharf stated, “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” He also said this in a Zoom meeting to associates. The statements went to the public on Sept. 22. The bank received immediate backlash nationwide, both in news headlines and across social media platforms. Many called for a boycott from the company.
The same day the news broke, Wells Fargo released a disingenuous quote from the CEO on Twitter. On Sept. 23, the bank posted a press release to its website in response to the backlash. It provides a more detailed apology, explanation and commitment to specific diversity initiatives. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and its reputation will long be associated with the CEO’s statements. Nothing about its commitment to diversity seems genuine when the CEO of the corporation is explicitly stating otherwise. No further statements were made by Wells Fargo. So, what went wrong?
Primarily, Scharf’s insensitive and discriminatory comments are simply unacceptable. It reflects the industry’s failure to recruit diverse talent and the CEO’s privilege to say something of the sort. The fact of the matter is, Wells Fargo and the financial industry aren’t properly targeting diverse audiences or giving diverse audiences an equal opportunity in leadership roles; it’s always been this way. This furthers the cycle of corporations discriminating against minorities. His statement is simply not true and reflects Wells Fargo’s lack of diversity and recruiting initiatives.
The tweet released by the bank quotes Scharf, “I am sorry my comment has been misinterpreted. The financial industry and our company do not reflect the diversity of our population. We, at Wells Fargo, are committed to driving change and improving diversity and inclusion.” This statement is incredibly problematic. “I am sorry my comment has been misinterpreted,” he says, after stating twice that there is a lack of Black talent and that’s why the company doesn’t have strong diversity numbers. From a PR perspective, defending insensitive actions with another insensitive statement is a double loss. How can one misinterpret your statement when you explicitly expressed your ignorant and false stance twice? How can you tell a group of people who have been discriminated against and abused for centuries that they misinterpreted your statement? This was a brutal choice of words by the social media team and makes me think even less of the company after seeing it. It’s apparent that Wells Fargo wanted to put a statement out quickly to avoid further damage, but there wasn’t enough review or consideration that went into it. In fact, I’m not even sure if anyone reviewed or considered another choice of words. I can think of multiple ways to address this off the top of my head.
The bank could have done better in its social media response in every way. From Wells Fargo’s perspective, I understand not wanting to spend too much time dwelling on the statements. However, with the level of damage done, they could have at least posted the press release on multiple social media platforms. Posting yet another insensitive quote on one social media platform doesn’t reach the people it needs to. Wells Fargo went silent on Facebook for 13 days after the crisis, when it regularly posts content on the page. This was handled so inconsistently, and it is clear when you look through the comments across its channels. Hundreds of comments appear on its Facebook and Twitter posts and people are not backing down.
Finally, there were no repercussions to the CEO. These comments were not just ignorant, they were directly discriminatory against minorities and damaged Wells Fargo’s reputation forever. How can a company commit to diversity and inclusion when the leader of it is Charlie Scharf?