In House - The FindLaw Corporate Counsel Blog

Look! Abercrombie Finally Shifts Hiring Focus After Years of Lawsuits

Models won't be the only ones working for minimum wage at Abercrombie and Fitch this summer. The clothing retailer has announced that it will no longer consider "body type or physical attractiveness" in hiring decisions -- it's even considering letting employees wear shirts to work.

O brave new world.

Abercrombie's "hunks only" policy had caused the company plenty of legal troubles over the years, including lawsuits over claims of legal and religious discrimination, one of which is before the Supreme Court right now. The change in the brand's hiring policy comes just a few months after its longtime CEO Mike Jeffries stepped down, a sign, no doubt, of how quickly common sense can be regained after a change of leadership.

A Look Policy of Very Questionable Wisdom

For years, lawyers at Abercrombie and Fitch and its sister company Hollister had been forced to defend the company's dicey "Look Policy." That policy, which governed hiring and employment decisions, included rules on how to wear one's hair, clothes, even fingernail polish.

Such close control over image lead to a fine balancing act between brand control and open discrimination -- a balancing act that didn't always work out for Abercombie. The company's practice of hiring shirtless dudes to stand outside its doors lead to complaints that it only preferred a whiter shade of pale. That controversy ended in a $50 million settlement with the EEOC. It didn't end the complaints, however. The Supreme Court in February heard a case involving the Abercrombie's refusal to hire a woman because she wore a hijab.

Rebranding After CEO Departs

Abercrombie's WASPy, hyper-sexualized image was often credited for transforming the brand from a dusty sporting goods store to one of the most popular teen brands of the past 20 years. Much of that change took place under CEO Mike Jeffries, who used advertising and catalogs to create an image of the brand that was part Aryan youth recruiting poster, part Harvard rowing team, and part soft core porn. Many of the company's hiring practices sought to recreate that image in their stores.

Jeffries had often defended the brand's approach, saying that an "exclusionary" approach was good for business. But that hasn't been the case for awhile, as Abercrombie's sales have dropped considerably in recent years. Jeffries may have been one of the last bulwarks against change. Under Abercrombie's new approach, the company will no longer refer to employees as "models," will move away from "sexualized marketing," and will evaluate workers on their work ethic, rather than their six packs.

Only time will tell if the company's new, wholesome image will result in increased sales or stem the tide of lawsuits it's currently facing.

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