Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F), notorious for their strict guidelines on employee appearance, have finally scrapped their ‘look policy’.
The clothing retailer have previously come under fire for their discriminatory policies and ‘over-sexualised’ branding, and has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and tribunals related to their hiring practices. They have also seen their shares fall by over 38 percent in the last twelve months and now plan to broaden their appeal to more shoppers.
In a statement released on Friday, the company stated that, by the end of July this year, there will no longer be sexualised images used in marketing materials, in-store photography and shopping bags, and have already removed the ‘beefcakes’, or shirtless young men, that previously greeted shoppers at the entrance to their stores.
A history of compliance issues
The last twelve years has seen A&F in trouble on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2003, the company were sued in the United States by a number of black, Asian and Hispanic employees who claimed they had been assigned to ‘backroom’, less customer-facing roles, resulting in a multi-million dollar settlement in 2004.
In 2009, Riam Dean won an unlawful harassment case against A&F in the UK, in which she claimed the company ‘diminished’ her for not fitting into their ‘look policy’ due to her prosthetic arm. Dean was forced to work in the stockroom to keep her away from the shop floor. She won a settlement of £8,000 when a central London tribunal ruled that A&F had failed to comply with UK employment law.
The US Supreme Court is currently hearing a another case concerning religious discrimination. Samantha Elauf, then 17 years of age, applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2008 and claimed that she was unsuccessful due to the fact that she wore a hijab, which violated the company’s ‘look policy’. The company stated that staff are instructed not to ask applicants about religion in the recruitment and interview process, but the colour (black) of her hijab and the fact that it was considered to be ‘headwear’, such as a cap or wooly hat would be, meant that Elauf received only one out of three as a rating for ‘appearance and sense of style’ and was not offered the role.
A federal judge initially ruled ruled in favor of Elauf, but the 10th US circuit court of appeals reversed that decision in October 2013, and the case is now being heard by the Supreme Court.
Since Elauf’s interview in 2008, A&F has paid settlements to two other women who claimed that the company discriminated against them because they wore hijabs. They were awarded combined $71,000, plus attorney fees in September 2013, with the company promising to review its hiring policies to accommodate those who wore hijabs.
One man’s vision?
The look policy is widely seen as the legacy of former CEO Mike Jeffries, who left the company in December 2014. Jeffries had previously put together a forty page manual that dictated the behaviour and dress of staff members, which became known as the company’s look policy and heavily influenced their recruitment strategy. Retail assistants were called ‘models’, a title that is now set to change to ‘brand representative’.
Jeffries is credited with turning A&F into a global brand during his 22-years at the helm, and the retailer now has 965 stores in over twenty countries worldwide. However, some of his policies, including an absolute refusal to sell any clothing in the colour black (also a part of the look policy for staff too), created the impression that they were created on a whim according to his personal preferences rather than a particular retail strategy.
In spite of being a constant target for anti-discrimination groups in the US and in Europe, under his stewardship the company appeared to court controversy, target younger and younger customers with branding that many found inappropriate, and continually fall foul of employment regulations. Since his eventual departure, after relinquishing the role of chairman the previous year, it is unsurprising that the new leadership is looking to move the company in a different and less controversial direction and appeal to a broader range of customers.
The company was originally founded by David T Abercrombie in Manhattan, New York, in 1892 as a gentlemen’s outfitters with what must have been a very different ‘brand strategy’ to that pursued by Jeffries a century later.
Title image credit: Choo Yut Shing
James Marsh is an HR consultant and currently leads the editorial team at HRreview.
An avid HR blogger and tweeter on HR and management issues, James has worked as an HR manager, consultant, in-house recruiter and trainer and has expertise in both management strategy and HR policies and processes. He has a BA from the University of Nottingham in American Studies, a Masters in Human Resource Management from the University of Westminster and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
James is also the regular chairperson of HRreview's series of webinars that discuss and debate the latest HR trends and issues, InsideHR.