An Open Letter to Dave Hilfman: A Communicator’s Perspective

[Editor’s Note: BTN previously ran
a statement
from the Global Business Travel Association’s board of
directors about its plans to turn the page on a new chapter for the organization,
with Dave Hilfman as its new interim executive director and with an assist from
association consultancy MCI USA. The following open letter to Hilfman offers
another point of view of how GBTA can turn that page. It is the perspective of
a former senior staff member who reported to former CEO Scott Solombrino (when his title was executive director and COO) and
interacted with the board. Certain claims in this piece
have been corroborated and previously reported by BTN, including statements
about the existence of a prior investigation and documentation of certain memos
and emails that are referenced. BTN reached out to GBTA to confirm or comment on certain events, but the organization declined the opportunity.]

I led the
Global Business Travel Association’s communications efforts from 2013 through
2019. We’ve never met, but I did have the pleasure of working with a colleague
on the speech delivered for your ICON award presentation in 2017. People lined
up to share their stories of how you were such a great salesperson, a great
ambassador for the business travel industry and an overall incredibly decent
human being. Now you have the opportunity to right the ship at GBTA.

I was
hopeful when I heard of your appointment, but in your first
in this new role, you thanked
former CEO Scott Solombrino. In your LinkedIn
, you praised the professionalism of the
board of directors that enabled him.

When you
thanked Solombrino, you sent a message to the brave whistleblowers that their
voices and the moral standing of GBTA do not matter.

When you
put your name on a press release clearing him of any misconduct, you sent a
message to your senior staff who
corroborated the allegations
in that
whistleblower complaint that a toxic workplace culture can just be swept under
a rug with few repercussions. You also sent a message to the global membership
and GBTA sponsors that their money supports this type of culture.

While I certainly understand the desire to
want to put the past in the past and move forward, when someone as respected as
you are says something like this, it sends a very clear message that this type
of behavior is acceptable.

As I
followed the breaking news around GBTA in recent weeks, I saw numerous comments
expressing shock and surprise. I imagine most people who have worked for
Solombrino would agree with me that the only shocking piece of all of this was
that people were surprised at all. When I read the all-staff email he sent that
was published in The
Company Dime
, it didn’t even faze me. It was
exactly who he is and how he communicated with his staff on a daily

by Polsinelli to participate in the investigation into the whistleblower
complaint, I initially declined. I told the attorney I didn’t feel the board
was conducting it in good faith. The board members knew who Solombrino was for
years since he served on the board among them. The board knew who he was when
they awarded him this job. They knew who he was when only one year into his new
role as executive director, and in the midst of a pandemic, they unanimously
voted to promote him to CEO. As such, they are complicit.

I also
had good reason to doubt the veracity of the investigation. I was among a group
of staff that participated in a 2017 investigation, also conducted by
Polsinelli, into then-president and current board chairperson Christle Johnson
for alleged mismanagement and mistreatment of staff. While the initial
investigation was conducted anonymously before that year’s board elections,
seemingly no action was taken. As a follow up, GBTA’s former head of HR drafted
a memo to Polsinelli including names of key staff members who were willing to
take part in the investigation. The memo from HR encouraged Polsinelli to consider
a recommendation of disciplinary action to the board. It noted how staff
members were extremely concerned with retribution. Despite this, there were no
apparent repercussions for Johnson or change in behavior—at least not while I remained
employed at GBTA. The memo, including each of our names, however, was shared
with Johnson. I know this because she inadvertently emailed it to me shortly
before she decided to drop out of the race for reelection in 2019.

[Editor’s note: Gallagher confirmed to BTN that she does
not know who passed the memo to Johnson.]

my initial judgement, I decided I had to participate in the Solombrino
investigation with the hope that it would be different this time. I sent the
lawyer conducting the investigation three typed pages of notes filled with
examples I personally witnessed of Solombrino’s racist and misogynistic
behavior as well as abuses of power and comments clearly meant to intimidate
employees. I included specific dates and meetings where many of the comments
took place.

Even so,
I was unsurprised to see Solombrino was cleared of legal wrongdoing. It is
typically not illegal to make racist and misogynistic comments. But, moreover, the
lawyer running the investigation told me he reported to the board of directors.
How could anyone think the board would possibly be impartial in this? They put Solombrino
in that role, so a negative outcome would reflect poorly on them. 

Let’s not
forget that this same group of people have been in control for a very long time,
thanks to the elimination of term limits in 2015. This has allowed close
personal relationships and loyalties to develop that could make impartiality
difficult. For instance, Solombrino was a groomsman in the wedding of one
member of board leadership. He also hired the son of another board leader to
work at his company at the time. So no, I was not surprised this group would
find a way to clear him of the misconduct allegations. 

forward, should we be surprised if the results of this MCI USA engagement have
nothing substantial to say about the role of the board, or if they, instead,
provide a margin for the board to retaliate against staff who spoke in support
of the whistleblowers? Perhaps by eliminating certain staff positions under the
auspices of a third party saying their roles should be outsourced? 

Dave, the
one surprise that emerged from all this turmoil was to see a statement clearing
Solombrino of any misconduct. How could investigators have come to this
conclusion in light of all the evidence to the contrary, including my own documented
experiences working for him? What message was this meant to communicate? Does
this mean that staff and membership now have the green light to behave in a
similar fashion without consequences? Membership should be appalled by this and
should demand the resignations of board leadership.

on your appointment have been reminiscent
of the laudatory sentiment I heard far and wide when you received your ICON
award and clearly demonstrate the widespread respect you have throughout the
business travel community. GBTA membership, the dedicated staff and the
business travel industry deserve to have that person as their leader. Despite
the consistent pattern of misconduct I’ve seen and experienced at GBTA, I
truly hope the business travel industry gets to see that person lead GBTA in its efforts to move forward. 

Colleen Lerro Gallagher led GBTA’s
communications efforts from 2013-2019. She currently works as a vice president
at a D.C.-based, women-owned public relations firm. 

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