Here’s an interesting case that reveals much about the way American mass marketers view religion and “diversity.” This week, a federal district court in California ruled in favor of Umme-Hani Khan, a Muslim teenager who sued her employer, the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. A&F fired Khan, whose job required her to restock clothes on the sales floor of an A&F store in San Mateo, because she insisted on wearing a Muslim headscarf, or hijab, on the job. The headscarf, A&F told her, was inconsistent with the firm’s “Look Policy,” a set of grooming and clothing requirements for employees.
The Look Policy is meant to project a consistent A&F identity to consumers who favor the brand–mostly kids between 18-22. You can see an illustration in the photo above, from A&F’s London store. Head coverings are out; shirts, apparently, are optional. A&F occasionally grants exemptions from the policy to employees who wish to wear religious garb or symbols, but only if the garb or symbols are not visible to others. Just judging by the outfits in the photo, that can’t be the case very often.
But back to Ms. Khan. A&F obviously fired Khan because of her attempt to exercise her religion. Under federal and state employment laws, though, a firm can fire an employee if accommodating the employee’s religious practice would create an undue burden for the firm. Here, A&F argued, allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would create such a burden. Allowing departures from the Look Policy would confuse customers and detract from their in-store experience. And consumer confusion would injure A&F’s brand identity and detract from sales. Simply put, allowing Khan to wear the headscarf would cost A&F money.
The problem was that A&F didn’t show that it had lost any sales because of Khan’s hijab. A&F speculated that consumers would be confused or irritated by the sight of Khan in a headscarf, but could point to no actual incidents. Nor did A&F offer convincing evidence about the negative effect employee headscarves had on sales at other clothing firms. On the record presented, the court ruled, there was no reason to believe that allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would pose an undue hardship for A&F . So Khan prevailed on her claim.
All this is straightforward employment discrimination law. What makes the case interesting is what it reveals about the mindset of mass-market retailers like A&F. Like many such retailers, A&F makes a big deal about its commitment to “diversity,” including religious diversity. According to its website, A&F recognizes the “25 different dimensions of diversity that make up who we are” (only 25?), such as “race, gender, family, sexual orientation, work experience, physical ability, and religion.” So it’s a little strange that A&F would fire a teenage stocking clerk who did nothing more offensive than wear a headscarf to work for religious reasons, and compound the PR mistake by litigating the case in federal court. What gives?
I can think of three possibilities. First, the people at A&F are clueless. Other recent PR disasters for A&F–like the suggestion that the firm doesn’t want heavy women wearing its clothes–render this explanation somewhat plausible, but I doubt it. You don’t become a successful retailer by being clueless. Second, the people at A&F are hypocrites. They talk a good game about tolerance and diversity, but are secretly bigots. This explanation is more plausible than the first, but still unsatisfying. I expect the people at A&F, especially the marketers steeped in our media culture, have internalized the diversity imperative. They really do wish to be “inclusive” and would be shocked to find out they’re not.
So here’s a third explanation. In our mass-market culture, “diversity” means something very specific: the right to purchase and wear (but principally purchase) the same products as everybody else. Wherever you come from, whoever your parents are, whichever God you pray to–whatever the precise mixture of those “25 different dimensions of diversity” that make you who you are–you have a right to the Abercrombie Look. To hold that diversity means something more than that, that it might require people to tolerate religious garb and symbols in the workplace, could be divisive and bad for business. And who knows where it would lead? Someone might actually try to wear a visible cross to work.
The case is Khan v. Abercrombie & Fitch, 2013 WL 4726137 (N.D.Cal. 2013)).