Alistair Fairweather

No gays please, we're bankers

2010-02-26 08:35

Bankers just don't learn. We're all still furious with them for nearly steering the global economy into a concrete wall, so you would think they might behave with less of their trademark arrogance. But no, on Wednesday CitiBank (America's fourth biggest retail bank) decided to block access to a business customer's account. Why? Because they are openly gay.

To be more precise, Citi suspended access to funds from an account owned by Fabulis - a social network catering to gay men - because a compliance officer (read: moralistic little turd) decided that content on their blog was "offensive".

Leaving aside the obvious violation of constitutional rights, what on earth are Citibank doing using their resources to block people's accounts based on some arbitrary (and clearly prudish) moral standard? They were just bailed out by tax payers to the tune of $50bn. Surely their compliance officers would be better deployed preventing another meltdown, or sniffing out money laundering or global terrorism?

More to the point, Fabulis is not about porn or even sex. In fact the service concentrates on trends and culture - from restaurants, to art galleries, to night-spots - and has far more to do with orientation than actual sex.

I reviewed their entire blog and couldn't find one objectionable thing on it. In fact I see far more objectionable content on YouTube on a weekly basis. Perhaps Citi should suspend Google’s accounts? Oh, wait, Google are worth $50bn more than CitiBank.

Late on Thursday CitiBank's PR people eventually stepped in (about 36 hours too late), claiming that the whole thing was the result of a regrettable error. Whether or not you believe them, the damage is already done. Search for "citibank" on any major search engine and you'll see what I mean.

Citi certainly aren't the first big company to make such a blunder. Hell, they aren't even the first big company to do so this month. On the 14th of February, SouthWest Airlines kicked "Dogma" director Kevin Smith off one of their flights, apparently because he was too fat. Thanks to Smith's million-strong Twitter following, the incident went very public, very quickly.

There's a positive side to all this stupidity: it shows how much influence the internet now has over our daily lives. Fifteen or twenty years ago, Citi might have gotten away with such arbitrary, bully-boy tactics. Reports would probably have been confined to gay advocacy publications. But in the age of Twitter and blogging, any story can quickly go global.

These incidents also point to a deeper change that needs to happen in large organisations. As Caroline McCarthy of CNET points out, PR and customer service used to be separate disciplines but are increasingly overlapping.

In the age of real-time internet, an angry customer doesn't have to be a celebrity like Smith (although it obviously helps). All they need is an internet connection, a Twitter account, and a just cause.

- Follow Alistair on Twitter: @afairweather

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