Nicholas Kristof: The grinch that fired an angel

To understand how some companies have lost their souls, consider what happened after U.S. Bank stiffed a customer before Christmas.

Marc Eugenio had deposited a $1,080 paycheck into his account at U.S. Bank. The bank put a hold on most of the sum, and he spent many hours in a branch office over two days, trying to get access to the money so he could buy presents for his 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

On Christmas Eve, Eugenio found himself parked at a gas station in Clackamas, Oregon, a Portland suburb, both his fuel gauge and his bank balance on empty. A bank employee had told him that money would soon show up in his account — perhaps a ruse to get him out of the branch office. For hours Eugenia then tried his debit card at the gas pump so he could buy a few gallons and get home to his wife and children.

“I was stranded,” he told me. “I could have walked home, but it would have been 5 miles in the cold.”

That’s when Eugenio found an angel.

He telephoned the bank’s toll-free number and spoke with Emily James, a senior officer at a call center in Portland. She spent an hour on the phone with Eugenio, trying to get some money released so he could at least get home. She soon realized that he had been misled, and that money wouldn’t reach his account any time soon. Feeling bad for a customer stuck on Christmas Eve, James offered to drive over from her call center and personally hand him $20.

“No, no, no,” Eugenio told her. He couldn’t impose. But she suggested she could use her break, and she received permission from a supervisor to drive 20 minutes to Eugenio. She later recalled that when she arrived, she wished him Merry Christmas and handed him $20 of her own money.

“Twenty dollars wouldn’t break me,” she explained to me, “and it would enable him to get home to his family.”

When U.S. Bank found out that it had such a generous employee, what did it do? It fired her.

“She broke the rules, putting herself and the bank at unnecessary risk,” U.S. Bank said in a statement. The company bars call center workers from meeting customers, so it dismissed both her and the manager who had approved her trip. The manager, Abigail Gilbert, told me that James’ account was essentially correct.

James had worked at the bank since 2017 and had received numerous commendations and awards that I examined, but the bank paid her no severance. She is single and used her last paycheck to buy sacks of food for her two dogs, Domino and Harley Quinn. She is now reduced to selling blood plasma, at $25 a visit.

“I won’t let myself be homeless,” she told me.

Eugenio is horrified at what happened. “I was lied to and treated like dirt” by the bank, Eugenio said, and he can’t understand why the bank axed the one employee who was helpful. “I felt really bad,” he told me. “How could she get fired?”

U.S. Bank’s vision statement boasts: “Our employees are empowered to do the right thing.” So I tried to ask the company’s CEO, Andrew Cecere, why the bank fired an employee who, with permission, rescued a frustrated customer on Christmas Eve.

Cecere wouldn’t return my calls. David Palombi, a bank spokesman, told me that an internal “investigation” had concluded that James misled Gilbert to get permission, that James could have found other ways to get money to Eugenio, that the $20 came from the manager (which Gilbert confirmed to me) and that James previously had disciplinary “issues.” I found the bank’s “investigation” a whitewash and its explanations to be incoherent, meanspirited and contradicted by a series of internal bank messages that I reviewed.

The bottom line is this: Cecere, who was paid $14.1 million in 2018, presides over a company that has smeared a much-decorated employee who helped a customer and as a result survives by selling blood plasma. I suggest Cecere apologize, reinstate James and promote her; he might also show contrition by selling his own blood plasma and donating the proceeds to a charity of James’ choosing.

When young Americans say in polls that they react more positively to “socialism” than to “capitalism,” it’s because of the hypocrisy of institutions like U.S. Bank.

I’ve often noted that companies have enormous capacity to help their communities. But too often they act like U.S. tobacco companies, which killed more people than Stalin did, or pharma companies peddling opioids, or McKinsey & Co. advising a business to “get more patients on higher doses of opioids,” or Boeing mocking regulators. That’s one reason to seek stronger private-sector labor unions: At least unions and corporations can then provide some check on each other.

One bit of reassurance: Some chief executives do seem more enlightened than Cecere. After The Oregonian wrote two excellent articles about James, other companies reached out to her, saying that she’s the kind of caring person they want to attract.

“No job offers yet,” she told me, “but there are a couple of possibilities I’m really excited by.”

Update: On Saturday evening, after this article went online, I had a contrite phone call from Andrew Cecere, the C.E.O. of U.S. Bank. “This is not who we are,” he said. He added that companies sometimes make mistakes, and that he accepted ownership of what went wrong. He also telephoned Emily James and expressed concern for her and for her supervisor, Abigail Gilbert. “I will fix this,” he told me.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.)