September 25, 2013

Can Your Company’s “Look Policy” Lead to Lawsuits?

Gavel & male judgeRemember when you were in high school and everyone “cool” wore Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F)? (Well, maybe it’s just the younger generations). Well, the retailer has landed itself in some “religious” trouble—trouble that’s costing it thousands of dollars.

Apparently,  on Sept. 20, the clothing company agreed to pay two Muslim women a combined $71,000 after it allegedly fired one of the ladies for wearing a hijab and refused to hire the other for the same thing.

The story goes:

Abercrombie will pay Hani Khan $48,000 after firing her four months after she began working in the company’s San Mateo store in 2009. She had been allowed to wear a hijab that matched the company’s colors until a district manager visited the store in February 2010 and saw her for the first time in a hijab.

Khan was fired soon after when the company determined hijabs violated the company’s “look policy” and detracted from its brand, the lawsuit stated.

The company’s “look policy”? Hmm, we will come back to this shortly.

The story also says that the other woman, Halla Banafa, “will receive $23,000 to settle her lawsuit that alleged Abercrombie discriminated by refusing to give her a job at its Milpitas store in 2008 when she was 18.”

Now, as a part of the settlement, A&F has agreed to make religious accommodations and now allows employees to wear hijabs, the traditional head scarves worn by most Muslim women when in public.

Now, if you’re familiar with A&F, the company certainly has a certain “look” it seeks when recruiting. A close friend of mine worked for the home office in New Albany, Ohio and before that he’d worked in a local store. He’s tall, slender, and well, attractive, i.e. the company’s “look policy.” One day as my friend was roaming the mall, a recruiter from the store approached him about a job and he was immediately hired. Even after going out of state to college (and, yet again, roaming another mall), a different recruiter approached him to work at A&F.

My young cousin also worked at A&F not long ago, and she too fits the “look policy.”

So, A&F associates and promotes a certain look with its brand; that’s not a big deal seeing as it’s a retailer appealing to a certain group of people. Yet, as clearly shown above, this company’s “look policy” led it to a lawsuit.

It’s one thing to have a dress code, but it’s another to break the law. And when it comes to the workplace, sometimes there can be a fine line between company policy and discrimination.

Although A&F probably wasn’t trying to send the message that hijabs aren’t “tall, thin and attractive” like it’s look policy, the company did make a mistake by discriminating against workers (and/or applicants) who wear them because they’re for religious purposes.

Now, those of you reading may not be retailers, but most companies have a “look policy” when it comes to what they deem appropriate and inappropriate attire at work. Below are three simple ways to examine your company’s policies (in general) to ensure that it doesn’t end up leading to a lawsuit, which like A&F, could certainly hurt your brand:

1. Survey Workers

Perhaps you think your company would never practice discrimination, but do your employees feel the same way? Why not ask workers how they feel? Ask about their views on religious freedom and tolerance in your workplace. Ask how they feel about the dress code and whether or not it feels discriminatory. Ask about discrimination in general, starting with the simple question of, “Have you ever felt like you were being discriminated against on the job?” You may be surprised by the responses you receive, but this is a great way to assess whether or not your business needs to make changes to its current policies.

2. Review Policies

Reviewing your company’s current policies is a great way to ensure you’re not breaking any laws. Remember, laws change. If it’s been awhile since your company’s policies have been updated, take some time to review each one to ensure they adhere to state and federal standards.

3. Take Action

If someone reports discrimination or even casually mentions that he/she feels like discriminatory practices took place in an incident, take it seriously. Make sure to operate your business as one with a zero tolerance level for discrimination. This will help ensure these “bad habits” don’t fall through the cracks.

Read more in Discrimination

Marks’ stories have also been published in a variety of newspaper, magazine and online formats including The Arizona Republic, The Daily Herald, Arizona Foothills Magazine and various classroom magazines of Scholastic Inc. Service is her passion, writing is her platform and uplifting and inspiring the community is her purpose. Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University.
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