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USCCR Commissioner Yaki takes Abercrombie & Fitch to task over racist incidents, poses questions that serve as checklist for other employers

September 13th, 2012  |  Pamela Wolf

Commissioner Michael Yaki of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (USCCR) has requested that Abercrombie & Fitch Co. conduct a public review of its diversity and cultural awareness program. Yaki’s request stems from reports that several models at the opening of a Hollister store in Yeouido, Seoul South Korea, engaged in offensive, racist behavior when they tweeted “squinty-eyed photos” and other rude gestures that were insulting to the Asian population. Characterizing the unfortunate incident as an “opportunity to recommit to a diverse workplace,” the commissioner also posed a series of questions that other employers can use as a checklist in the wake of discriminatory incidents.

In a letter dated September 11, Yaki noted that this most recent the incident isn’t the only one to reflect negatively on the company’s reputation in the area of diversity — Abercrombie, the parent company of Hollister, “has a long history of discriminatory hiring practices and marketing campaigns that perpetuate racial stereotypes by avoiding Asian and African-American models,” Yaki wrote. “In 2003 a class action lawsuit brought allegations of a nationwide corporate policy by your company of giving preference to white employees and job applicants in placement and hiring. A consent decree from that case required Abercrombie & Fitch Co. to take diversity seriously, creating an office of diversity and taking specific, measurable steps to give equitable opportunities to people of all races and ethnicity.” [footnote omitted].

According to Yaki, while the company more recently claims to have made significant progress in minority hiring and diversity training, allegations nonetheless continue. He recommended that Abercrombie & Fitch take additional steps to make sure that its employees are well trained in diversity policies and sanctioned when violations occur. “A company that targets teen and twenty-something consumers in the United States needs to wake up to the fact that the upcoming generation is majority-minority,” he advised.

Opportunity. Taking the “safe road” would be to avoid public scrutiny of racist incidents like those that occurred in Korea, Yaki acknowledged. “[B]ut the more courageous path — especially given your company’s checkered history on race — is to conduct a public inquiry into what happened.” After gathering the facts, the company would then explain to the public exactly what happened, under Yaki’s recommended scenario. “Take this grotesque display of stereotypes and make it an opportunity for your company to recommit to a diverse workplace.”

Employer checklist. Commissioner Yaki also posed a serious of questions that Abercrombie & Fitch should consider during the course of its inquiry. With modification, these questions provide a valuable checklist for any employer confronting incidents of race or national origin discrimination in the workplace:

  • Why did the offending employees think their actions were amusing or acceptable?
  • What specific training, if any, did these employees have or not have about cultural sensitivity prior to the incident?
  • Who or what division in the company would or should have been responsible for training?
  • Were there other similarly discriminatory acts performed by these or other employees that have escaped the scrutiny of upper management?

Understandably, most employers would avoid the public inquiry into racially insensitive workplace incidents that Yaki has recommended in this particular case. However, the notion that employers should view such incidents as an opportunity to identify factors that may have inadvertently fostered offensive behavior and to clearly reiterate their commitment to nondiscrimination is good, solid advice.