By AnnaMaria Andriotis
Sophia Lewis thought she would build a long career at American
Express Co. A few years in, though, she was telling her bosses that
something was wrong.
Ms. Lewis said she saw some AmEx employees routinely submit
corporate card applications without verifying the companies'
financial information, pocketing commissions each time. Beginning
in 2018, Ms. Lewis said, she alerted higher-ups about those
complaints. But AmEx, she said, had created a culture where
employees can get rewarded for breaking rules.
"It was when I started raising red flags," she said, "that
things started going downhill." The company suspended her in
February for reasons it said are unrelated to her complaints. Other
current and former employees said they saw the same behavior that
Ms. Lewis described.
An AmEx spokesman said the company, based in New York, is
committed to fostering a culture of respect and integrity, and
provides multiple channels for employees to raise concerns. "We
encourage our colleagues to speak up when they believe our
policies, values or standards are not being upheld, and we strictly
prohibit retaliation," he said.
In the race for customers, AmEx has relied heavily on
commissions to motivate salespeople. More than a dozen current and
former AmEx employees in sales, customer service and compliance
previously told The Wall Street Journal that salespeople
strong-armed small-business owners to increase those card sign-ups,
sometimes misrepresenting card rewards or issuing cards that
weren't sought. An AmEx spokesman said at the time that the company
had found only a very small number of problems, which were resolved
"promptly and appropriately," including through disciplinary
Banking regulators have kept a close eye on sales incentives
since the Wells Fargo & Co. fake-accounts scandal exploded in
2016. According to an internal 2018 AmEx document, the Office of
the Comptroller of the Currency told AmEx to change how it paid
employees who sold small-business and corporate cards -- the
division where Ms. Lewis works. The regulator said AmEx's
commission structure could increase the risk of misconduct.
An OCC spokesman declined to comment. An AmEx spokesman said the
matter was raised by the OCC in 2017 and that the company addressed
In response to Ms. Lewis's allegations, the AmEx spokesman said
that her higher-ups had properly referred her concerns to "our
independent investigatory teams." He said the claims "were
thoroughly reviewed and appropriately addressed" and that "no
instances of customer harm were identified."
Ms. Lewis, now 50 years old, joined AmEx's Phoenix office in
2014 to sell small-business cards. She had worked for years selling
By 2017, she was promoted to oversee a group of about 10
employees selling small-business and corporate cards.
In 2018, Ms. Lewis said, some of her employees told her about
what they believed to be problems with certain salespeople on
For a business to be eligible for a corporate card, it typically
needed at least $4 million in annual revenue, according to current
and former employees and company documents.
Ms. Lewis and other current and former employees said some
salespeople were submitting applications without verifying their
numbers. Many of the businesses fell far short of the $4 million
threshold, they said.
Ms. Lewis told a sales director about what she and her employees
were seeing, and AmEx launched an investigation.
The AmEx spokesman said that the company may make exceptions to
the $4 million threshold, and that it is only one factor used to
determine whether a business qualifies for a corporate card. "All
applicants undergo a thorough risk assessment to determine their
creditworthiness," he said.
The spokesman also said that AmEx "found no violations of
policies or procedures" when it reviewed Ms. Lewis's claims.
The questionable applications typically wouldn't get approved if
underwriting employees reviewed them. But some did, and salespeople
pocketed commissions either way, often about $475 to $650 per
application, Ms. Lewis and former employees said.
Soon, in Ms. Lewis's unit, AmEx changed commissions for
corporate cards to pay them after the cards were approved and used.
The AmEx spokesman said the company regularly reviews and modifies
sales incentives, in part to reduce circumstances that could lead
to inappropriate sales practices. He said the 2018 change was made
"to better align with business objectives."
After the AmEx investigation into Ms. Lewis's claims about sales
practices, she applied for several positions and didn't get
In July 2019, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission alleging racial and gender discrimination.
Ms. Lewis, who is Black, said she was also frustrated about not
The EEOC forwarded her complaint to the Arizona attorney
general's office, which closed her case last month, citing
insufficient evidence. Ms. Lewis is appealing.
The AmEx spokesman said the company had "found no basis for" Ms.
Lewis's allegations of discrimination. "We are deeply committed to
fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace," he said.
Spokespeople for the EEOC and the Arizona attorney general
declined to comment.
Around mid-2019, Ms. Lewis said, her salespeople told her that
some employees in Arizona and Florida were again engaging in the
questionable tactics she had previously flagged, including not
verifying companies' financial information. By then, AmEx had
returned to paying commissions for applications -- though now it
could claw back the money if underwriters rejected them.
Ms. Lewis again alerted her bosses. In October, for example, she
emailed several sales leaders, citing about a dozen examples of
what she saw as problematic sales, according to a copy of the email
reviewed by the Journal. In one case, a salesperson had submitted a
corporate card application for a Greenbelt, Md., financial-services
firm without including verifying documents and while using a
corporate ID number related to Apple Inc. The financial-services
firm isn't related to the technology giant.
When asked about the exchanges that Ms. Lewis described, the
AmEx spokesman said: "When the employee raised concerns of
potential sales practice violations, they were properly referred by
her leaders to our independent investigatory teams outside of her
business unit, thoroughly reviewed and appropriately
A few days later, Ms. Lewis was told by email that two of those
sales leaders had met with "internal audit," which was looking into
A week later, Ms. Lewis said, she was called into a sales
leader's office, where she was told to consider how she was
affecting her "brand" and whether she wanted to remain at AmEx, Ms.
Lewis said. He followed up with an email saying she wasn't supposed
to conduct her own investigations, according to a copy of the email
reviewed by the Journal.
Ms. Lewis replied that she thought she was doing the right thing
by bringing problems to leadership, according to a copy of the
email reviewed by the Journal.
Ms. Lewis said she struggled over what to do next. Her husband
encouraged her to press on. So did her mother.
In December, Ms. Lewis filed a Labor Department complaint. A
Labor Department spokeswoman didn't comment on Ms. Lewis's
In February, Ms. Lewis was placed on a three-day paid
suspension. The AmEx spokesman said she broke information-security
policies by sending confidential company information to her
personal email address.
Ms. Lewis said she did nothing wrong. She said she had sent an
email to her personal account with information about a problematic
sales call. She said she had also forwarded an email that she had
written about sales problems to her personal account.
Ms. Lewis didn't want to go back to the office. Exhausted and
unnerved, she said, she filed for stress-related paid sick leave.
AmEx granted it.
A couple of weeks later, Ms. Lewis learned that her performance
rating for 2019 had plummeted. She doesn't know why. During the
first three quarters of 2019, Ms. Lewis was a top performer among
small-business and corporate card sales managers, according to a
Ms. Lewis said she tried to negotiate with AmEx through the
Labor Department. She wanted to return, but only if her performance
rating is revised. AmEx, she said, has declined.
Write to AnnaMaria Andriotis at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 14, 2020 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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