Bay Area retailer’s ‘diversity’ in question
By Matt O’Brien
Contra Costa Times
SAN MATEO — Hani Khan never set out to be the next lightning rod of the culture wars, testing the limits of religious acceptance in the Bay Area and the retail industry.
Unfazed by the blaring pop rock, haze of cologne and sepia-toned posters of bare-chested surfers, she walked confidently into a Hollister Co. clothing store last fall, sat down for an interview and secured a part-time job. The 19-year-old liked that she could go to work in flip-flops, jeans and a color-coordinated hijab, the head scarf she wears as an expression of her Muslim faith.
“Hollister associates represent American style,” said the employee handbook she picked up on her first day. “America is diverse, and we want diversity in our stores.”
So far, so good. She was, after all, American, born in New York to an Indian father and Pakistani mother and raised in California. The sophomore at the College of San Mateo has worn a head scarf in her classrooms since kindergarten. She wore it to malls and movie theaters and while playing second base for the softball team at San Mateo High.
“To me, it symbolizes my faith, where I’m coming from,” she said. “People don’t focus on my beauty so much as they focus on my intelligence, on what I have to say.”
In the broad-minded Bay Area, no one ever argued with that.
Except, last month, at Hollister, the spinoff of Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch that she says fired her for wearing the hijab at work almost five months after she started there. A week before her termination, during a meeting with a district manager, was the first time in her life someone had confronted her — not just out of curiosity — about her Islamic garb.
“She called us from there and said, ‘Come and pick me up,’ ” said Khan’s father, who asked that his full name not be used in concern for his family’s safety. “She was really upset.”
Abercrombie & Fitch has refused to comment on its dress policy or on Khan, who filed a federal discrimination complaint against the company last week. News of the dispute, which is likely to be investigated by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, has fielded a diverse reaction.
At the crux of the debate is how inclusive employers should be when a worker’s appearance clashes with their corporate image.
“A company like Abercrombie & Fitch, and particularly the Hollister brand, is really selling not just clothing but a lifestyle, an image,” said Jo-Ellen Pozner, who teaches organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. “It is normal for organizations to recruit and socialize their staff in a way that’s consistent with the image they’re trying to get across to their customers.”
From an ethical standpoint, however, it seems to Pozner that the company went too far.
“It’s entirely appropriate until the line where it invades someone’s civil liberties,” she said. “If (the company culture is) strong and it’s enforced informally, then people who don’t fit in are going to be filtered out. That’s a pretty powerful way to keep a culture strong. It’s very different to fire someone.”
Building a unique and uniform brand — in Hollister’s case, one associated with a made-up Southern California beach town — is part of the business model.
Flip-flops or slip-on sneakers are not only encouraged for Hollister employees, but required, according to the handbook Khan received, adding to the surfboards and other props that give the store a beachy atmosphere.
Lip balm is welcome, but not lipstick. Makeup, if worn at all, “must be worn to enhance natural features and create a fresh, natural appearance.”
Tattoos are accepted as long as they will not distract customers, and “cornrow hairstyles are not permitted.” Hair must “appear neat, clean, natural, kempt, and classic. This means that the hairstyle must look as if it could have grown that way.”
Because she wore a hijab, no one could see Khan’s hair. But there was nothing in the guide, known as the Look Policy, that seemed to expressly prohibit a scarf over her head as long as she wore the right colors. The only reference to headgear was a ban on caps.
“Even though Hollister sells caps, they are considered too informal for work — caps are not allowed to be worn,” the guide said.
Kjerstin Elmen-Gruys is surprised that Khan got the job in the first place, and that she wanted it. She worked for more than a year as an associate merchant for Hollister clothing at the corporate headquarters of Abercrombie & Fitch in New Albany, Ohio.
“Think of your customer as young, sexy, all-American,” was what employees were told, Elmen-Gruys said. “We talked about who the customer was, not what it wasn’t. All-American was left for us to figure out what it meant on our own.”