Image and Personality Discrimination in Employment:
A Case Analysis of Abercrombie & Fitch
Established in 1892 by avid outdoorsman David Abercrombie and later expanded into a giant clothing retailer by Ezra Fitch, Abercrombie & Fitch is one of today’s most successful clothing companies. From its inception as a sporting goods retailer and its further growth into the world’s largest sporting goods store that attracted the rich and the famous as its customers, the company has since then moved on to become a symbol of “casual luxury.” Majority of Abercrombie & Fitch’s consumers belong to the young and elite demographic. The company itself was revived by The Limited, Inc. from its bankruptcy in the 1970s by repositioning the brand to target a much younger clientiele. However, Abercrombie & Fitch has maintained its appeal to the upper class market by consistently suscribing to the image of luxury. Through an advertising campaign, the brand Abercrombie & Fitch was transformed into the clothing choice of hip, young, White Americans who either had disposable income or who were born in the lap of wealth and moneyed class. Ultimately, the brand had to change its image to include other ethnicities in the upscale market.
Problem and Opportunity
In 2003, Abercrombie and Fitch was the target of a controversial class lawsuit filed by nine of its former employees who alleged that the company had discriminatory hiring and employee retention policies. Among the allegations brought against Abercrombie & Fitch were unfair treatment and unjustified terminination of workers which included assigning non-White employees to back-office positions and refusing to give them jobs on the sales floor.
The company later decided to settle the case to the tune of $40 million although it refused to own up to the charges of its former employees. Instead, the company publicly denied the presence of discriminatory practices in its organization and stated that it settled the case to prevent an overdrawn legal battle from threatening the company’s and its management’s physical and financial resources. Abercrombie & Fitch also agreed to a consent degree as part of the settlement agreement, which required the company to implement concrete and specific actions to reduce discriminatory practices in all levels of hiring and employment strategies, and to improve cultural diversity in the organization.
The provisions of the consent degree, which will be in force until 2009, catalyzed changes in the organization. The company continues to promote the “All American Look” but it now uses models of ethnic origins other than White in its advertisements and marketing campaigns. The company also claims to value a culturally diverse and inclusive workforce. The discrimination suit clearly tarnished the company’s image. On the other hand, it also became an opportunity for the retail company to expand its captive market by attracting not only the upperclass White but also the remaining part of America’s upscale market.
Causes of the Problem and Opportunity
It is clear that Abercrombie & Fitch’s legal problem arose from the White-centric culture in the company. This culture was developed from the need to maintain a corporate reputation aligned with the company’s “All American” brand image which emphasized youth, sexiness, being physically active, and being White. Although the company is not willing to own up to the discrimination charges levied against it, it is inevitable that its managers and human resource department would prefer employees who fit within the image that the company is trying to project as a brand. (Hurley-Hanson & Giannantonio 2006, p. 453) Apparently, Abercrombie & Fitch prioritized employees who looked consistent to the the “All-American Look” that it was trying to sell, thereby systematically ignoring non-White employees although their job performance was at par—or in some instances, maybe even better than—their “All-American” colleagues.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s involvement in the discrimination charges both had negative and positive effects. On the one hand, the company suffered from the financial cost of settling the class suit. On the other hand, it became an opportunity for the company to expand its target market and to transform its concept of what an “All American Look” is. However, the company clearly needs to seriously address the roots of its problem, which is the discriminatory culture imbibed by its employees and personnel in hiring positions owing to brand image concerns. In its objective of reducing discrimination and in building a corporate culture that appreciates and encourages diversity, the company can consider three alternatives. The first is to continue with Abercrombie & Fitch’s existing employment policies, which appears to be influenced more by the need to implement the consent degree from the discrimination case settlement agreement rather than conscientiously build an inclusive culture. The second is to continue implementing the provisions of the consent degree even after these become non-binding in 2009 in order to build a culturally diverse workforce. Third, the company could choose to permanently incorporate the provisions of the consent decree as part of company policy and also put into place mechanisms to acknowledge and punish not only racial discrimination but also image discrimination practices among its recruiters, personnel, and even management.
It is clear from Abercrombie & Fitch’s case that the company needs to address the lack of accountability from top to lower level management of discriminatory policies in hiring and employment procedures. Accordingly, the first solution, which is driven more by legal considerations, would not resolve the deeply ingrained discriminatory attitude and values in the organization. It would simply deflect attention on the pervasiveness of the problem while it continues to persist in the company. The long term consequences of management denial about discrimination can be grave. D’Netto & Sohal (1999) contends that instead of benefitting the company, “the denial of people management problems creates an atmosphere that leads to inefficient ultilisation of large numbers of employees” (p. 531) that in the long run could affect the company bottom line. In the same manner, the second solution would encourage the company to work towards cultural diversity but only temporarily and only if it suits its business interests as it would also be convenient to leave the policies, now non-binding, once they are deemed to be detrimental to business interests or when there is no threat of an imminent lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the third alternative not only institutionalizes the illegality and unacceptability of discriminatory action based on ethnicity but also on a lesser known but more pervasive form of discrimination that is based on the image and personality of a potential or current employee, (Hurley- Hanson & Giannantonio 2006, p. 453) that keeps most organization from truly building inclusive corporate cultures. The need to establish mechanisms to eliminate discriminatory attitudes, values, and norms within the organization is made more urgent by the fact that “discriminatory selection processes may trigger judicial orders aimed at marketing practices themselves.” (Avery & Crain 2007, p. 23) Thus, discriminatory practices are often more costly and harmful to the company, as has been exemplified in Abercrombie and Fitch’s previous lawsuit. In pursuing an end to costly litigation procedures arising from discriminatory practices in hiring employees, the company must be able to impart its serious stance on non-discrimination to employees at all levels and must be able to demonstrate this stance in actual practice. Hence, the third alternative is the one that is recommended for the company. This is because the third alternative emphasizes the need for the company to acknowledge that discriminatory attitudes are indeed prevalent in corporate settings, as most people in key hiring positions often have “beliefs about occupational stereotypes and the importance of image for achieving person-job fit” (Ibid) that bear a tremendous impact on hiring, retention, and promotion decisions. Thus, despite claims to the contrary, management personnel could be sending implicit signals about “organizational preferences regarding gender, race, national origin, physical attractiveness, and image” (Hurley- Hanson & Giannantonio 2006, p. 454) in hiring company employees that effectively sabotages the organization’s efforts for creating an inclusive and diverse culture. Thus, building a diverse culture necessitates the institutionalization of values that not only encourages diversity but creates a feedback and evaluation mechanism with a corresponding merit and punishment system to ensure that all employees abide with the core values of the organization, including the explicit prohibition of discrimination. (Sippola 2007, p. 255) This also entails adopting a comprehensive human resource development framework that targets both individual and organizational changes from prejudiced behaviors and attitudes to ones that value differences as organizational assets. (Ibid)
The success of the implementation of the recommended solution can be assessed by the company through the development of benchmarks of diversity and inclusivity in its culture. The criteria that could be used are the growth in the ratio of employed workers from different ethnicities, personalities, skills, and physical attributes in all levels of the organization and the subjective perception of employees of their working environment or employee treatment and income. The company could utilize this data to measure the quantitative and qualitative aspects of cultural changes, including changes in attitudes, values, and actual practice. Likewise, Abercrombie & Fitch could also use the human resource development objectives to gauge the impact of diversity training programs and evaluation mechanisms by comparing the objectives set with prevailing practices among managers and employees.
Avery, D. & M. G. Grain (2007). Branded: Corporate Image, sexual stereotyping, and the new face of capitalism. Duke Journal of Gender and Law Policy, 13:15-123.
D’Netto, B. & A. S. Sohal (1999). Human resource practices and workforce diversity: an empirical assessment. International Journal of Manpower, 20( 8): 530-547.
Hurley-Hanson, A. E. & C. M. Giannantonio (2006). Recruiters’ perceptions of appearance: the stigma of image norms. Equal Opportunities International, 25(6): 450-463.
Sippola, A. (2007). Developing culturally diverse organizations: a participative and empowerment-based method. Women in Management Review, 22(4): 253-273.
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