What are some alternative solutions for Abercrombie & Fitch's hiring practices?
Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch often recruited on college campuses and in the mall to find attractive young people and then urge them to apply for jobs. This company, known for building an attractive workforce, did so by aggressively hiring pretty young women and handsome young men to match their all-American brand image. Abercrombie & Fitch refers to these great-looking sales associates as brand ambassadors. They project the retailer's brand and make the store a better experience for customers.
In 2003, Abercrombie & Fitch was named in two class-action lawsuits alleging discriminatory hiring practices. Black, Asian, and Latino plaintiffs alleged that they were denied sales associate positions. These workers were directed to low-visibility jobs in the stockroom or maintenance department.
Abercrombie & Fitch did not admit guilt and denies that it engaged in any discriminatory practices but settled these cases for $40 million distributed to several thousand minority and female plaintiffs. The company agreed to appoint a vice president for diversity, use benchmarks, train all hiring managers, and hire 25 diversity recruits in an attempt to alter its white, all-American image and more accurately reflect the applicant pool in its stores. The settlement also calls for Abercrombie & Fitch to increase diversity in its promotional materials.
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It is unlikely that Abercrombie & Fitch can legally continue to have a sales staff that is all-white. However, it is possible that they could engage in legal hiring practices that would maintain their image as a “cool” brand.
One legal alternative, of course, would be to hire any qualified applicant for a sales position. This would mean that the firm would no longer be able to have its sales staff be uniformly good looking. The firm would clearly avoid discrimination accusations, but it might lose its ability to control its image.
A second thing that the firm might do is to try to create job listings that get the right kinds of applicants without seeming to be discriminatory. It is not clear if this would be possible, but it could be tried. For example, the firm might require that all applicants be able to wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothes that are sold in the store. This might be a legitimate requirement as the sales staff would be able to act as models as well as sales staff. This could prevent people who are not height-weight proportional from being employed. Courts might see the ability to do the modeling as a “bona fide occupational qualification.”
A final thing the firm could do would be to base retention decisions on selling ability. If Abercrombie’s customers really do prefer attractive, white sales staff, they will presumably buy more from those staff members. If the firm has a policy of firing people after a month or two if they do not meet certain levels of sales, it could weed out salespeople who have the “wrong” look. This might preserve its image without violating the law.
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