Executives from Canada's big banks defended the way they do business Monday, saying they take steps to make sure employees don't engage in questionable sales practices.

Testifying before the House of Commons finance committee, they said codes of conduct govern the actions of their employees and violations are dealt with seriously.

Moreover, they said that since news reports emerged of troubling stories told by bank employees, the banks have taken a closer look at their practices and stepped up monitoring.

Monday's hearing, which went on for three hours, was the third and final hearing on this issue. 

The hearings come in the wake of a series of stories by CBC's Go Public, in which bank employees described questionable practices by some of Canada's biggest banks. Allegations included pressure on employees to meet ever increasing sales targets, signing clients up for services without informing them and forging signatures and initials.

Former employees made similar allegations when they appeared before the committee last week, and behind the scenes committee members have been showered with emails from former employees, current employees and bank clients across the country.

Six of Canada's top bankers painted a very different picture when they appeared before the committee Monday – a picture of a world where the client comes first, where lapses are minimal and taken seriously. A world in which employees aren't fired for missing sales targets and bank employees who suggest services or investments are simply helping clients better manage their money.

The bankers faced pointed and sometimes skeptical questions from several of the committee members. They were asked about a range of subjects, including pressure on bank employees to sell services, banks automatically increasing credit card limits without being asked, and tellers who check a client's account balance when they visit the bank and try to point the client towards in-house investment advisors.

Problems sometimes occur

Under questioning, the bankers acknowledged that problems do sometimes occur despite their efforts to monitor their staff's actions.

Kirk Dudtschak, executive vice-president of personal and commercial banking for the Royal Bank of Canada, told the committee that last year the bank found that there were fewer than 75 cases of employees "misselling" to clients and fewer than 20 were fired. 

Andrew Auerbach, executive vice-president and head of distribution, Canadian personal and commercial banking for the Bank of Montreal Financial Group, told the committee that the number of employees fired for crossing the line was "very small" relative to the number of employees, but did not provide numbers.

Andrew Pilkington, executive vice-president branch banking for TD Bank Financial Group, told MPs on the committee that TD does not encourage employees to falsify signatures and when it does happen they investigate and terminate the employee.

While the initial CBC Go Public report focused on TD Bank employees who came forward about the pressure to meet increasing sales targets, Pilkington challenged the report, saying it didn't square with what he knew of how the bank operated.

The banks told MPs the kinds of practices outlined by employees who have come forward don't align with their codes of conduct and assured the committee that they have stepped up monitoring of practices at their banks.

They also assured the committee that the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) has begun its investigation into their sales practices, and agency officials are currently in bank offices seeking comprehensive information about how they do business.

What to make of the conflicting testimony, briefs and emails and what — if anything — to recommend to the government now falls to the finance committee.

Wayne Easter

Wayne Easter, chairman of the House of Commons finance committee, says the committee now has to weigh the conflicting accounts it has received. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Chair Wayne Easter said the committee will meet Wednesday to decide what to do next but he warned that committee members might not be able to draft a report before the House rises for the summer in coming days.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus is also planning to propose a motion calling for the committee to recall the FCAC and the banks once the agency finishes its investigation.

Easter said a key question for the committee will be whether regulatory changes are necessary to better protect Canadian consumers.

"Trust is the key issue here. In order to attain that trust, does there have to be some strengthening either of an independent ombudsman or the Financial Consumer (Agency) of Canada. We'll have to look at those thoughts."

Meanwhile, Easter said the CBC Go Public story and the hearings have already begun to result in change.

"I think the hearings themselves, the fact that the finance committee has held hearings, and the CBC story I think has gone a long way to provoking the discussion."

He said the banks that have come before the committee "have indicated that they have fairly strenuously taken a serious look at their inner workings and are the codes of conduct working or are they not."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca