By Alan Reinach
Ever since the Civil Rights Act championed the rights of a diverse workforce, many American corporations have fought to hold on to their homogeneous corporate image. Some industries, like airlines and retail stores, have elevated corporate cloning to an artform, insisting that their employees embody their brand.
But the rise of the clones has met with resistance in the courts. In an early case, an airline lost a legal challenge to its requirement that “stewardesses” (they were not called “flight attendants” back then) all be female, young, slender, sexy, and clad in tight fitting clothing. No matter that such corporate branding was designed to appeal to the male business traveler. The courts rejected these requirements as gender discrimination.
In more recent years, the most notorious American company to pursue a similar strategy is the clothing retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch. A&F began as a purveyor of luxury sporting goods in 1892. After bankruptcy in the mid 1970’s, the brand was resurrected as a youth-oriented clothing retailer. Today, it is a thriving fixture of the American shopping mall. Don’t expect to find salespeople in an A&F store – the company doesn’t hire any! The people who staff A&F’s retail outlets are called “models.”
By hiring “models,” A & F seeks to preserve the right to make its “look”policy a key part of its marketing strategy. Those who work in retail are expected to be living ads for the brand, its image, and its product.
Enter a Muslim woman, wearing a head covering, and you can predict the unfolding drama. In 2009, 19-year-old Umme-Hani Khan was working at an A&F store for several months before the regional sales manager spotted her, and quickly fired her for violating the company’s “Look Policy” – specifically, its prohibition of hats. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit, and the judge heard arguments whether the “Look Policy” justified what amounted to religious discrimination. The company vainly tried to prove that its marketing success depended on strict compliance with its “Look Policy.” But as the judge wanted to see more than opinion – she wanted to see how having this woman and her head covering in the store for four months had an adverse impact on the store’s business. Without such evidence, the judge ruled that A&F had no defense to this act of religious discrimination.
The protection for religious expression exemplified by the outcome in the Abercrombie & Fitch case has enormous significance for all Americans, and for the look of the American workforce. Many religions express themselves through individual dress and appearance: Muslim women may cover their heads, but so do others. Sikh men wear turbans, observant Jewish men wear yarmulkes. Men in several religious traditions wear beards. Christians may wear a cross necklace, and the list goes on.
California now leads the way in outlawing such conduct, with passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which explicitly prohibits segregating workers form the public on account of religious appearance. As a result of the new California law, and decisions like that in the A&F case, expect to see more religious diversity in corporate America, especially in retail.
The momentum in favor of diversity of both religion and appearance is long overdue. Homogeneous corporate appearance standards are part of a culture that breeds conformity and mediocrity at the expense of individuality and freedom of religious expression. So don’t be shocked the next time you see a turban, a hijab or a beard at one of the country’s giant chains. Corporate clones be gone: individuality is coming back to a workplace near you.
Editor’s Note: For more about what the Abercrombie & Fitch decision means for workers, read CELA VOICE Co-Chair Charlotte Fishman’s op-ed in the Sacramento Bee.