Going for the Look, but Risking Discrimination
by Steven Greenhouse
The New York Times, Sunday, July 13
A funny thing happens when Elizabeth Nill, a sophomore at Northwestern University, goes shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch. At no fewer than three Abercrombie stores, she says, managers have approached her and offered her a job as a clerk. “Every time this happens, my little sister says, ‘Not again,’” said Ms. Nill, who is 5-foot-6 and has long blond hair. She looks striking. She looks hip. She looks, in fact, as if she belongs in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Is this a coincidence? A fluke? No, says Antonio Serrano, a former assistant Abercrombie store manager in Scranton, Pa. It’s policy. “If someone came in with a pretty face, we were told to approach them and ask them if they wanted a job,” Mr. Serrano said. “They thought if we had the best-looking college kids working in our store, everyone will want to shop there.” Abercrombie’s aggressive approach to building a pretty and handsome sales force, an effort that company officials proudly acknowledge, is a leading example of what many industry experts and sociologists describe as a steadily growing trend in American retailing. From Abercrombie to the cosmetics giant L’Oreal, from the sleek W hotel chain to the Gap, businesses are openly seeking workers who are sexy, sleek or simply good-looking. Hiring for looks is old news in some industries, as cocktail waitresses, strippers and previous generations of flight attendants know all too well. But many companies have taken that approach to sophisticated new heights in recent years, hiring workers to project an image. In doing so, some of those companies have been skirting the edges of antidiscrimination laws and provoking a wave of private and government lawsuits. Hiring attractive people is not necessarily illegal, but discriminating on the basis of age, sex or ethnicity is. That is where things can get confusing and contentious. “If you’re hiring by looks, then you can run into problems of race discrimination, national origin discrimination, gender discrimination, age discrimination and even disability discrimination,” said Olophius Perry, director of the Los Angeles office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has accused several companies of practicing race and age discrimination by favoring good-looking young white people in their hiring. Some chains, most notably the Gap and Benetton, pride themselves on hiring attractive people from many backgrounds and races. Abercrombie’s “classic American” look, pervasive in its store and catalogs and on its Web site, is blond, blue-eyed and preppy. Abercrombie finds such workers and models by concentrating its hiring on certain colleges, fraternities and sororities. The company says it does not discriminate. But in a lawsuit filed last month in Federal District Court in San Francisco, some Hispanic, Asian and black job applicants maintained otherwise. Several plaintiffs said in interviews that when they applied for jobs, store managers steered them to the stockroom, not to the sales floor. In interviews, managers like Mr. Serrano described a recruiting approached used by Abercrombie, which has become one of the most popular retailers among the nation’s youth. “We were supposed to approach someone in the mall who we think will look attractive in our store,” said Mr. Serrano, who said he quit when told he would be promoted only if he accepted a transfer. “If that person said, ‘I never worked in retailing before,’ we said: ‘Who cares? We’ll hire you.’ But if someone came in who had lots of retail experience and not a pretty face, we were told not to hire them at all.” Tom Lennox, Abercrombie’s communications director, emphatically denied job bias but acknowledge the company...