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ABN Amro boss dons dress to entertain staff

Thursday, 16 Jan 2014 | 5:45 AM ET
Gerrit Zalm dressed as "Priscilla"
ABN Amro
Gerrit Zalm dressed as "Priscilla"

Bankers are often assumed to be serious, uptight – and male. However, ABN Amro appears to have broken the mold when the Dutch bank's chairman dressed up in drag and masqueraded as a brothel owner at a corporate event.

Gerrit Zalm, who is also the former Dutch finance minister, donned an electric blue dress (complete with cape), a ginger wig and extravagant spectacles to make a presentation to the bank's annual staff cabaret.

"Priscilla Zalm" – who claimed to be the chairman's sister – told the bank's employees that it was "of course, very saddening" that her brother denied her existence.

This was due to "jealousy", she claimed, arguing that the chairman had always been a mere employee at the Dutch state-owned bank.

(Read more: The Ghost of ABN Amro Haunts Europe's Banks)

She, on the other hand, as the owner of a brothel was a "successful entrepreneur."

"He would have liked that too. But he doesn't have the potential," she told a crowd of ABN Amro employees. "The bank has a lot to learn from the best practices of my company."

ABN Amro was at the heart of the most recent financial crash, when a consortium of Spain's Santander, Fortis and Royal Bank of Scotland bought into the bank in 2007. As the crisis took hold, the banks were hit hard by the capital strain and losses caused by the acquisition.

The Dutch bank was eventually bailed out at a cost of 27.9 billion euros ($38 billion) by the Dutch government, which hopes to launch an initial public offering of the bank in 2015.

(Read more: UK banking bonuses up as cap row looms)

Zalm, who is 62, joined ABN Amro in 2008 as vice-president and became chairman the following year.

Speaking at the cabaret, an annual event which always begins with an amusing introduction by Zalm, Priscilla pointed out that she had been blessed with a good "front office", pointing to her ample (fake) bosom, and an excellent "back office."

Her "brother" Gerrit had stopped working a long time ago, she said, choosing instead to "lead" and earn more than those who do the real work. "That is smart," she added.

Corporate drag works?

Andre Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School in London, said Zalm's performance is part of a long history of corporate drag.

"One only needs to look at Richard Branson, who is the first to jump out in a pair of heels when the opportunity presents itself," he told CNBC.

(Read more: Big Bonuses,but a Shift in Who Gets the Biggest)

Using humor in a corporate environment has a host of potential benefits, according to Spicer, including diffusing built-up tensions, dealing with messy, often contradictory situations and enabling employees to engage with arguments in a new way.

"There is likely to be a lot of employee dissatisfaction at ABN Amro as a result of the government ownership, downsizing and bonus caps," he said. "A touch of humor like this could help to boost morale."

But Spicer warned there were also risks to the strategy – including the possibility that the jokes would fall flat.

"If it's pulled off, humor is very effective, but we all know how hard comedy is to get right. If it all goes wrong, it could be hugely damaging," he said.

"Comedy is also very culture-specific. I'm not sure bosses in many other countries could get away with jokes about prostitution."

By CNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop and Google

Correction: This story has corrected the names of the banks that bought into ABN Amro in 2007.

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