For several days now, Gawker has been shining a light on hiring practices at American Apparel, a 10,000-worker garment manufacturer where “employee relations” is, apparently, a double entendre and provocative ads are the norm.
Over the last few days, Gawker reported that the financially troubled, but oh-so-hip firm has a hiring and promotion policy that has more to do with high cheekbones than it does with almost anything else. For instance, Gawker wrote about a “full body head to toe” photo requirement for employee referrals, espoused during a manager conference call in May.
A follow-up article, based, Gawker said, on internal documents and photos, offered a closer look at just what the company wanted in the way of candidate photo submissions. An accompanying extract, presumably from one of the documents, offers such detailed photo instructions as “Include a close-up of face…” and “We need to clearly see everyone’s hair, color length, and style.”
I’ve been careful to punctuate the quotes just as they are in the Gawker illustration. A comma after the word “color” in that last excerpt could open American Apparel to a world of (legal) hurt. But unless these photos are used to discriminate against a protected class, there’s no Title VII problem. And to date, being only of normal attractiveness is not a disability. (Though being tall is worth about $789 an inch per year, University of Florida researchers found.)
Even so, American Apparel posted a denial Monday of the Gawker stories. Says the company:
“American Apparel does not hire or retain applicants based on ‘beauty.’ Our main priority is finding people with a strong sense of style who can inspire customers as they make selections from our extensive line. This is an integral part of the job, and we look for people who will enjoy it as a creative outlet. It has never been the policy of American Apparel, as some blogs claim, to fire employees who are not “good looking” or any of the other accusations implied by the anonymous or unverified third party sources.”
American Apparel’s career site requires wannabe retail store workers to submit the head-to-toe photo and a letter of interest. It pointedly says that a resume is optional. No pictures required for IT positions.
Whatever the purpose of the photos is at corporate, the rank and file wrote in to Gawker, convinced only the attractive and fashionable need apply. “These [biases] based on attractiveness are 100% accurate,” wrote one. Another, described as a former manager, detailed a “class photo” request:
“We were asked to take class photo’s (sic) constantly. In one instance we received a mysterious phone call from a girl who would not give her exact position, but said she had heard that we were doing poorly and found us some recruits. We were then forced to send in a class photo immediately (so that she could assess the alleged ugly employee situation ). Only three of us were working, including myself, and the photo was sent in within five minutes. A few minutes later we got a call back saying “well you guys look great, I thought you had a staffing issue over there.” Basically implying that the only plausible reason for not making sales is being unattractive.”
There were also comments on the company’s grooming standards, which include such details as avoiding wearing even some of the company’s own clothes. With the company moving in a “more sophisticated, expensive, classy direction,” according to what Gawker says are internal documents, employees were counseled to wear only “The New Standard.” Anything else, though it may still be in the stores and for sale, shouldn’t be worn because “it wrecks the image American Apparel is trying to portray.”
Other rules included the types of footwear “that shouldn’t be worn.” On the list are Keds, Converse, Vans, and “doc Martins” (sic).
A few days later, Gawker posted what it said were emails from Katherine Johnson spelling out grooming rules for men and women. Johnson’s LinkedIn profile identifies her only as “management” at AA.
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Among other things, men should avoid excessive hair product, keep facial hair clean and groomed, and wear belts with pants that have loops. Women, she wrote, should wear minimal makeup, keep their hair its natural color, not wear distracting jewelry, and so on. The email guidelines are eminently reasonable — perhaps not for Silicon Valley, where style is geek-influenced.
Banker Debrahlee Lorenzana (who is suing Citigroup which fired her, she says, for being too attractive and fashionable) should have sent in a photo. She might have been hired as the CFO.
Curiously, men are permitted to wear the previously forbidden Keds; clean, white, but Keds nonetheless.
American Apparel has had a history of employee relations issues. It has been lauded for its “Made in the USA” operations and its pay, at $13 an hour with benefits, is high by garment worker standards. On the other hand, the company and its CEO Dov Charney have been sued multiple time for sexual harassment. They’ve never lost, but odd things have happened. A couple cases were settled. One, though, had such peculiar terms attached to it that a Court of Appeals essentially threw the whole thing out.
In defending the company, Charney’s attorneys wrote in a court filing, “American Apparel is a sexually charged workplace where employees of both genders deal with sexual conduct, speech and images as part of their jobs.”
Several years ago, during an interview, he had oral sex with an employee in front of a reporter from Jane magazine.