Monday, September 01, 2008

Abercrombie & Fitch

The Dallas Morning News website uses pop up ads, which I really dislike. But they have an interesting story on the personnel practices of Abercrombie & Fitch.
There's no in between. You're either Abercrombie hot – or you're not.

Kristen Carmichael discovered she didn't fit the clothing store's self-described "sexy, effortless style" when she was pulled from a sales position on the floor of the NorthPark Center store and shoved back to the stockroom to fold clothes.

This was after they'd rated her face.

The college student who was in Dallas for the summer and her female co-worker had received a 0 ranking on a district manager's monthly audit. The report, posted on a wall in the office, included the question, "Do all female models currently working have beautiful faces?"

There were two choices, 0 and 5, with the higher number signifying an approval rating for the models – an Abercrombie & Fitch term for sales representatives. The same question for the male models had both 0 and 5 marked – a mix.

"It's so subjective how they judge you," said Ms. Carmichael, a 19-year-old brunette with sharp blue-green eyes and a trim, athletic build, who was told by one manager that she wasn't attractive enough to work on the floor.

The debate centers on the ethics of labeling teenage beauty more than on the possibility of unlawful actions. At issue is whether it's morally justifiable to define an "Abercrombie look" these days, three years after a lawsuit settlement forced the retailer to enhance diversity and amid ongoing debate about Abercrombie's marketing practices, which often include shirtless young men and wistful-looking women in thin outer garments.

Todd Corley, Abercrombie's vice president of diversity and inclusion, said the "face" question refers to the full presentation of an individual, not merely his or her visage.

The company says it is important to uphold the brand's image and maintain diversity in its stores. Some sales representatives are chosen to appear in posters, ads and other marketing materials.


'Hierarchy of hotness'

Sales people function as the store's advertising and are handpicked by current employees, said Joshuah Welch, a 26-year-old Dallas resident, was hired two weeks ago as a manager and told to recruit people who walked into the store looking "all-American, clean, wholesome, or the girl or boy next door." He said stocking employees, on the other hand, are told not to speak to customers.

"It's a hierarchy of hotness," he said.

Cory Payne thought he reached the upper tier when he was recruited as a "model," or salesman, at the Dallas store. Then he found himself in the back storeroom.

"It wasn't the job we signed up for," said the tall 22-year-old blond athlete. "We showed up on time and we felt we were being punished for being good employees."

A weekly "secret shopper" evaluation posted in the back room also focuses on appearance. Employees receive one point for a "yes" to the questions, "Was the person in the women's front room attractive?" and "Was the cashier attractive?"

These rating systems remain legal as long as they don't discriminate based on race or gender.

"There's no real problem to discriminate against 'ugly' people," said Jahan Sagafi, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, the firm that represented the plaintiffs in the original diversity suit. "The problem is when you define beauty to incorporate white, which it essentially does at Abercrombie."

Ms. Carmichael and Mr. Payne are both white and say they don't expect legal or financial compensation. Instead, they believe their demotion signifies a disturbingly shallow mentality in youth-focused retail.

The job is "a cattle call and you are hired based on looks, not your ability to fold clothes or work with people," Mr. Welch said.


Fitting a mold

He just quit his managerial training program at the NorthPark store after his bosses told him he would have to leave if he didn't get rid of his new blond highlights.

"I need a job where I am appreciated for the work I do, not because I fit into their mold," said Mr. Welch, who previously worked for Abercrombie in Austin before appearing on a season of the CBS reality show Big Brother.

"I thought they had evolved, but they haven't," he said.

The company agreed in 2005 to pay $40 million to a group of Latinos, blacks, Asians and females who accused the company of advancing whites at the expense of minorities.


Working on diversity

Company representatives say they're fostering a much more diverse and accepting workplace since the lawsuit, with about 32 percent of the floor staff now either Asian, black or Latino.

Last spring, the company – which has more than 1,000 stores and 88,000 employees nationwide – created a new "look book," a collection of images for managers to refer to when hiring.

"It's an array of faces – black, white, Hispanic," Mr. Corley said. "It gives a sense of style, dress. It goes to a whole standard of appearance."

Although the company has hired a diversity coordinator and promoted more minorities to management positions, it's unclear to what extent Abercrombie has adapted its image.

A court-appointed monitor wrote in his second annual compliance report last August that images of Asians and Latinos were "almost entirely absent" in Abercrombie's marketing. A third compliance report is due at the end of the month. Earlier this month, a civil rights group filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim teenager in Oklahoma who alleged she was denied a job because she wears a headscarf.


Unintended bias

Even physical evaluations can tread on shaky ground because they often unintentionally discriminate, said Greg Gochanour, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the supervising trial attorney on the 2005 case.

He called the rating system "bizarre" and said he hasn't heard of other companies with this type of audit.

The streamlined image book in each store is intended to take out bias, said Mr. Corley, as are partnerships with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League. The company also is working with Georgetown University to establish the country's first diversity management program.

Ms. Carmichael, who is back at school in Arizona, said that even if the company isn't technically violating the law, it's still sending the wrong message.

"It just seems so superficial and kind of stupid," she said. "I don't think I'm the most attractive person in the world, but I don't think I'm so hideous you have to shove me into a back room."

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