Felix Salmon

There’s nothing fabulis about Citibank

By Felix Salmon
February 26, 2010

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries has a good post on l’affair Fabulis, in which a gay entrepreneur named Jason Goldberg was told by Citibank that his website “was not in compliance with Citibank’s standard policies” before receiving a fulsome apology from Bill Brown, the head of branch banking in New York. (Goldberg’s been blogging on this a lot; the best way to see everything is just to go to his blog home page.)

Valentino-DeVries points out that this is not an isolated case: Citi refused to open an account for sillyunderwear.com a couple of weeks ago, on the grounds that “we typically decline accounts associated with content that the general public may potentially find inappropriate or offensive”. Meanwhile, Goldberg is asking for feedback on the question of whether he should move his money.

The answer is that, yes, clearly he should. I spent a fair amount of time on the phone yesterday to various Citi types talking about the Fabulis situation, and it’s clear that once the PR team and the top honchos get dragged in to an issue like this, they’ll do their best to rectify the situation and explain how gay-friendly the company really is. (Although I know two different gay people who left Citigroup because they felt uncomfortable being out in the organization; one was quite senior when he left about 10 years ago.)

The fact is that a company with hundreds of thousands of employees is always going to have difficulty getting all of them onto the same page when it comes to such matters — even in places as gay as Manhattan. And as in most bureaucracies, the initial response of any typical mid-level Citibank manager to complaints about service is to get defensive.

Goldberg has a lot of money in the bank — he just got $625,000 in funding, all of which he deposited at Citi. What he should have with his branch manager is a mutually-beneficial relationship, where the branch knows, understands, and supports his business, and helps him out with financial services as and when he needs them. Instead, he was treated as a computer entry, his account was frozen for reasons which remain murky, and the branch manager, far from knowing him personally and trying to rectify the situation as quickly as possible, instead started accusing him of grave sins against internet decency.

There’s no shortage of gay-friendly managers at banks and credit unions across Manhattan who have both the time and the inclination to help small gay businesses on a personal and institutional level, without having to navigate an enormous bureaucracy to do so. The kind of relationship that Goldberg deserves is one where he can phone up his bank manager directly, say “hi, it’s Jason”, and they can have a constructive conversation immediately. Instead, he seems to have ended up in the kind of relationship where he’s likely to have to give his name and account number before some anonymous functionary looks him up on a computer system and tries to work out what The Rules say about what Citi can and can’t do for him.

Goldberg said yesterday that it was “certain” he was going to take his banking elsewhere. He should stick to his promise: he’ll be glad that he did.

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