U.S. Bancorp will review rules that led to the firing of two employees who helped a customer outside normal channels just before Christmas, Chief Executive Andy Cecere told employees on Monday.
The move came after a New York Times columnist over the weekend published a column sharply criticizing the bank's actions and calling the episode one way "to understand how some companies have lost their souls."
The employees, who worked at a U.S. Bank call center in Portland, Ore., helped a customer on Dec. 24 who couldn't get cash because his paycheck from a new employer was held up in a verification process that wouldn't be resolved until after the holiday.
One of the employees drove to a gas station from where the customer was calling and gave him $20 in cash. That action violated a company policy that seeks to limit customer contact to branches and offices, and the two employees were fired on New Year's Eve.
While the firings made news in Oregon and went viral on social media, the column by the Times' Nicholas Kristof put a bigger spotlight on them and elevated the situation to the highest levels of the Minneapolis-based company. After the Times posted the column on Saturday, Cecere called Kristof, who attached a note to the column about the conversation and quoted Cecere as saying, "This is not who we are."
In a statement published on the company's website, Cecere said: "It is important to acknowledge our mistakes and when we fall short of our own high expectations. I take full responsibility."
He added that the company "will also conduct an immediate review of our policies and make appropriate changes to them that align with our values and our commitment to both customers and employees."
Cecere said he spoke to both of the fired employees and said he would work with them and other executives "to understand how we can do better." It wasn't clear whether the fired employees would be offered their old jobs.
U.S. Bank for several years has touted a rating by the Ethisphere Institute, a business that aims to quantify business ethics and review corporate adherence to them, as one of the world's most ethical companies.
But the situation in Oregon showed how the firm's adherence to rules could conflict with both its customer-service goals and employees' desire to help someone who was caught in a situation beyond their control.
In the column, Kristof said he found the company's explanations for the firings to be "incoherent" and "mean-spirited." He added, "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."
After a reader posted a comment to his column pointing out that many people encounter times in life when they are required to "go above and beyond," Kristof replied that common sense must prevail.
"Look, I understand why companies put holds on checks so that they reduce the risk of fraud losses. I understand why they have policies banning call center employees from meeting customers," Kristof wrote. "But companies also need a bit of common sense, a bit of heart."