Monday, April 15, 2013

A Muslim walks into a store… Corporate “Look Policies” and religious discrimination

I’ve written before about the tension between companies’ preferences for how employees look and the religious freedoms of those employees (here, here, here, and here).

One company that has gone many rounds in litigation over this issue is Abercrombie & Fitch. Anyone who has walked past an Abercrombie store knows the waft of its familiar fragrance. Abercrombie is not only interested in consistency in how its stores smell, but also how the employees who work in those stores look. To this end, Abercrombie maintains a formal “Look Policy,” detailing what employees are, and are not, permitted to wear. One of its bans is on headwear. According to Abercrombie, it has made at least 70 exceptions to its Look Policy in the last seven year, all on a case-by-case basis, including some religious accommodations for hijabs.

In EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores (N.D. Cal. 4/9/13) [pdf], the EEOC alleges that a Milpitas, California, Abercrombie stored refused to accommodate Halla Banafa’s Muslim faith when it refused an exception to its Look Policy for her head scarf. The stored clued Banafa into the fact that her religion might be an issue when it asked her during the interview, “You're a Muslim, right?”
Abercrombie argued that it did not have to accommodate Banafa because it was an undue hardship to deviate from its Look Policy in her case. Specifically, Abercrombie argued that allowing the exception “would disrupt its careful branding efforts, resulting in customer confusion,” and that it would “hurt store performance.”

The court, however, sided with the EEOC, granting its motion to strike the store’s undue hardship defense:
Abercrombie does not offer any studies demonstrating a correlation between failure to comply with the Look Policy and either customer confusion or decreased sales. Nor does it offer into evidence any of the store reports that linked poor sales performance with lack of adherence to the Look Policy. Rather, Abercrombie offers only the seemingly speculative assertion on the part of its executives that the correlation exists…. Abercrombie’s executives consider adherence to the Look Policy important and part of their core strategy, yet they are unable to furnish any evidence outlining the degree to which Look Policy compliance affects store performance or brand image…. [T]he court finds that Abercrombie’s proffered evidence affords little basis upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that Abercrombie would be unduly burdened in permitting Ms. Banafa to wear a hijab at work.
This opinion is in line with that of at least two other courts that have ruled on the same issue under Abercrombie’s Look Policy (here and here).

The lessons to be learned?
  1. No good comes from asking a potential employee about his or her religion during a job interview.
  2. If you are going to selectively grant exceptions to work rules, your decisions will be scrutinized if later challenged in litigation, and your better have good reasons available.
  3. If you hope to claim an undue hardship defense to a religious accommodation claim based on your company’s image, you need to have the hard data to back your claim. Hypothetical hardships likely will not carry the day.
[Hat tip: Chai Feldblum]