Benetton, Gap, A&F Hiring on the Basis of Looks

Introduction

As a clothing retailer whose target market is mainly the young adults, Abercrombie & Fitch relies on its “brand representatives” to ensure that they are a symbol of the company by adorning the “natural, classic American style” (McBride, 2005, p. 78). Accordingly, A & F ensures that its sales representatives adhere to strict codes of grooming with regard to controllable elements of their looks. These standards have also been articulated by A & F in the company’s “Look Policy”. Whereas employers in the clothing and fashion industry needs to ensure that they use strategies that will attract the customers that they target to their stores, hiring on the basis of looks has therefore become a fashionable practice in this sector (McEachern, 2008, p. 408).

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On the other hand, other firms in the industry have not been seen to go to the depths that A & F has gone to, and this could explain the many lawsuits that have been filed by potential candidates for employment regarding either wrongful termination or discrimination during hiring, based on their religion, age, sex, and race.

Legal and ethical issues of the A & F case

From a legal perspective, whereas other retail chains like Benetton and Gap hire attractive people from diverse races and backgrounds, A & F on the other hand, have been accused on being too selective, hiring only blondes. There is also the issue of discrimination by A & F, by hiring sales ladies on the basis of looks. Allegations by plaintiffs to several lawsuits that have been filed against A & F are that the company is discriminatory to people, on the basis of their age and religion (Carroll, & Buchholtz, 2008, p. 937). From an ethical point of view, A & F employs a provocative strategy to market to its main target market; teenagers and young people. According to one of the sales ladies at A & F’s image is “party-loving jocks and bare-naked ladies living fantasy lives” (Carroll, & Buchholtz, 2008, p. 937). In other words, the company thrives on a cool and seductive strategy to market its products. The case study provided for this research paper has featured the comments of one of the sales ladies at the company, Elizabeth, who asserts that “the skirts are getting shorter. The tops are getting smaller. That seems to be the trend and Abercrombie is going with it” (Carroll, & Buchholtz, 2008, p. 938). This novel provocative strategy targets teens, as well as those in their twenties.

Evaluation of the concept of the ‘A & F look

The ‘A & F Look’ concept emphasizes on an attractive and stylish appearance of potential sales ladies. Usually, the company targets tall blondes with long hair. The company has a policy that requires that their managers approach those individuals they deem attractive, with a job offer. The philosophy of the A & F stores is that “if you have the best-looking college kids working for you, everyone would want to shop there” (Carroll, & Buchholtz, 2008, p. 937). The appearance policy that A & F uses to hire people is discriminatory since potential sales people that do not manifest the “A & F Look” are at a risk of not getting hired by the company. Also, the so called “A & F Look” is entirely composed of an all-white image. Accordingly, discrimination on the basis of race comes in, meaning that Latinos, African-Americans and people of the Asian descent, amongst others, are left out when the company is recruiting new employees.

McBride (2005) observes that “when people do not fit the ‘A & F Look’, inquire about employment, managers sometimes tell them that the store is not hiring” (p. 78).

While it is understood that to a certain extent ,employers have a discretion on whom to hire, nonetheless the approach that A & F has assumed indicates certain flaws, such as discrimination on the basis of race. It is not proper to discriminate potential employees based on their physical appearance, because they could possess for example, outstanding sales skills. On the other hand, stores such as A & F have to be careful to ensure that they employ young and attractive sales ladies who will help to increase traffic to their stores, by appealing to their main target market; teenagers, and those in their twenties. Nonetheless, there are also tall, stylish and attractive potential sales ladies from other races, besides the whites.

A lot of people will attest to the fact that at one time or the other, they have been denied a job on the basis of their physical appearance. This writer is no different. For instance, two years ago, this writer had applied for a part-time job as an exercise instructor. However, the fitness centre did not offer the job, supposedly because according to their policy, it is important that instructors that are hired are themselves fit enough. This is a clear indication of just how the physical appearance of an employee could function as a powerful symbol with the potential to impact on the success of their job. Although this writer never filed a lawsuit with the fitness centre for unlawful denial of employment, nonetheless there are many cases of employees that have been treated in the same way, and gone to court to seek legal redress. Most times, companies faced with such a lawsuit either opts for settlement with the plaintiffs or in rare cases, change their policies that had appeared discriminatory and unfair to employees.

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Ascertaining how discriminatory or unfair the employment practices of A & F are

Whereas it is true that employers may not refuse to hire potential employees based on race, sex, and age, still there are companies such as A & F that have enforced codes on the appearance of their employees. In addition, title VII makes an allowance for employers to hire on the basis of appearance, as long as they are in a position to ascertain for a fact that race, sex, or even age, constitutes a “bona fide occupational qualification.” (Panaro, 2003, par. 1). For that reason, despite the fact that an employer is at liberty to hire new employees exclusively based on their looks, employers also have the discretion to take into account the fact that appearance might be a “bona fide occupational qualification” (Panaro, 2003, par. 6 ).

Still, it is discriminatory and unlawful when employers are seen to treat workers or applicants differently, on the basis of for example, their practices or beliefs in such employment aspects as recruitment or hiring. It is equally unfair and discriminatory for the store managers at A & F stores to only approach tall and attractive blonde ladies with a sales job offer. However, it is important to note that Title VII does not prohibit appearance-based discrimination per se, which is why when a plaintiff intends to put to challenge the appearance discrimination legality, other issue such as age, sex or race must also be addressed.

How A & F could turn its practices less controversial

Hiring employees based on their physical appearances as A & F has been doing, is a practice that has also been implemented in other companies, for years. However, the company has received more lawsuits compared to the other companies due to the controversy surrounding the issue of hiring sales representatives. By hiring attractive people, A & F, just like other retail stores such as Benetton and Gap, hopes to attract more customers to their stores, thereby increasing their sales revenues. Unlike A & F, the other retail clothing stores have embraced race, religion and gender diversity in hiring employees. There has also been allegations that the “classic American Look” that they are so intent on portraying by using tall blondes with long hair as their sales representatives “is narrowly defined by such traits as blond, blue-eyed, and preppy” (Carroll, & Buchholtz, 2008, p. 937). Seeing that America is multiracial, it is important that A & F also recruit employees from the different races to reflect this ideal American image.

A & F has also been sued for wrongful termination of employees based on their religion, with the most recent case involving a Muslim lady. This is in addition to a disability lawsuit that was field by a sales lady who was removed from the front of the store to the back because she had a prosthetic arm and the company felt that she did not have an attractive look, due to her physical limitation. Such accusations reflect poorly on the image that A & F has cultivated over the years. There is a need therefore for the company to ensure they embrace gender, race, religion, and age diversity.

Passing judgment on A & F case

Hiring on the basis of a person’s looks in not an infringement of the anti-discrimination laws as spelled out by the federal government (CBS Interactive, 2003, par. 2). Nonetheless, this kind of a policy could also be prohibited by the laws of a state. For example, the Human Rights Act of District of Columbia argues that hiring based on looks is unlawful. However, hiring bases on race, gender, protected characteristics or disability does not contravene federal law (Tittle, 2000, p. 229). Accordingly, A & F would be acting within the confines of the federal law by hiring employees based on looks, as long as it does not step into the jurisdiction of such states as District of Columbia.

Conclusion

Industries have for as long time now been hiring employees based on their appearance, looks, or physical appearance. A & F has in place a looks policy of hiring whereby the company’s sales representatives are usually blonde with long hair, in a bid for the company to reflect the “classic American style”. The implication here is that all-white is a symbol of the American style, which is not the case. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act excludes discrimination in employment on the basis of the subject’s race, sex, gender, as well as religion. To this end, A & F may be seen to have faulted from a legal perspective. However, should A & F prove that these are “bona fide occupational qualification” issues; it may be plausible for the company to hire employees based on looks. Even so, it would be prudent for A & F to adhere to the specification of Title VI when hiring, so that they are not seen as being unfair and discriminatory I their hiring practices.

References

Carroll, A. B., & Buchholtz, A. K. (2008). Business and society: ethics and stakeholder management. Stamford, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning.

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Benetton, Gap, A&F Hiring on the Basis of Looks
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CBS Interactive (2003). Got the look? Abercrombie & Fitch’s hiring policy: hot or not? – News Debate. Web.

McBride, D. A. (2005). Why I hate Abercrombie & Fitch: essays on race and sexuality. New York: NYU Press.

McEachern, W. A. (2008). Economics: a contemporary introduction. Stamford, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning.

Panaro, G. (2003). Is hiring on the basis of appearance illegal? Web.

Tittle, P. (2000). Ethical issues in business: inquiries, cases, and readings. Ontario: Broadview Press.

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