How a banking scandal launched one Georgia student’s career in ethical accounting

Hannah Lambert on the left

When Hannah Lambert entered college at Shorter University in northwest Georgia, she did her personal banking with Wells Fargo. Four years later, the bank was the subject of the paper she delivered at the 2018 Alpha Chi National Convention in Portland. Her research tackled the very financial fraud that had captured headlines and cost Wells Fargo a $142 million-dollar settlement for creating fraudulent accounts.

Raised in the Atlanta suburbs, Hannah didn’t discover her prowess in accounting and auditing until her sophomore year. She originally enrolled as a Christian studies major and later switched to marketing, but both fields turned out to be, in Hannah’s words, “Not my cup of tea.” But what did strike a chord was her accounting class. “I’m very much on the artistic humanities side of things, so I expected to hate accounting,” says Hannah. “But I realized that I need structure and boundaries. I came to love the way numbers process and flow. I love the idea of balance.”

After tilting from one major to another, she stood firm and declared herself an accounting major. “It was right where I needed to be,” says Hannah.

What she also needed was a bit of a push. For Hannah, this encouragement came from her advisor and accounting professor, Dr. Robert Darville. “He immediately took me under his wing,” says Hannah. “He saw a lot of potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. He encouraged me to achieve more than just coming to class and completing my assignments.” It was Dr. Darville who first suggested to Hannah that she pursue a research paper. As her mentor, he would help get the ball rolling, keep her true to deadlines, and make sure she presented her findings.

As Hannah searched for a research topic in accounting, it just so happened that she was enrolled in a class in financial fraud. Instantly, she was hooked. “I really loved the idea of finding the fraud in a business and figuring out ways to prevent it.” While she was learning the fundamentals of business fraud, a scandal was unfolding in Washington, DC: Hannah watched as the CEO of her own bank, Wells Fargo, testified before congressional committees about his company’s fraudulent creation of up to 3.5 million unauthorized fake accounts. It was fraud writ large on the nightly news. The juiciest bit for Hannah? The fraud came with a three-year paper trail.   

Hannah dug right in. “Of course, I wanted to figure out how fraud was committed at Wells Fargo,” says Hannah. “But I wanted to plunge deeper into what role the management played.” With an interdisciplinary twist, Hannah’s approach was to draw on motivational theory. In cases of fraud, there is a triangle of elements that must be present: opportunity, pressure, and rationalization. Hannah’s question of management, then, was: What created the negative institutional pressure to create sham accounts at Wells Fargo?

Through her research, Hannah found that the bank sought to increase their cross-selling of products as a vehicle to amplify brand loyalty. “This plan to cross-sell became extreme, and middle management started to create fake accounts.” Ironically, as Hannah examined the bank’s finances, she concluded that cross-selling had no material impact on the bank’s bottom line, which led her to question why they were creating fake accounts in the first place. “Had the bank started with an ethical game plan—if they had trained their employees to be better salespeople—they still could have reached their goals but in a clean, ethical manner,” she says.

To Hannah, the Wells Fargo case is a cautionary tale. “It really opened my eyes to the importance of culture in any business and how it plays into long-term success, not just meeting sales goals but also to the success of your employees and ultimately to the financials.”

Her research, presented on stage at the 2018 Alpha Chi National Convention, also played a pivotal role in Hannah’s own career path. “I want to go into the audit and assurance field,” she says. “Part of that is talking with management and frontline workers in the interview portion of an audit—and looking for potential red flags.”

Hannah’s story is everything you hope for in a great college experience: the chance to explore new subjects, a mentor’s sage advice, and finding a scholarly community. And that’s where Hannah’s Alpha Chi membership sustained her.

“The whole idea of Alpha Chi is to hold each other to a higher standard,” she says. “We’re all reaching and achieving these really lofty academic goals. For me, Alpha Chi lets me know I’m not alone in studying and working incredibly hard. It’s been my support network.”