Legal

Abercrombie Ruling Shows Why Companies Should Address Discrimination Training

By Rick Bell

Jun. 1, 2015

The Supreme Court’s ruling on June 1 in the Abercrombie & Fitch discrimination case points out once again this simple but really important employment fact: Train your people.

The justices ruled 8-1 in favor of Samantha Elauf, the then-teenageMuslim girl who in 2008 was denied a job with the clothing retailer because of her hijab, or headscarf, didn’t meet the store’s supposed “look policy” for floor staff and violated her religious rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The hiring manager, Heather Cooke, approached the district manager seeking approval after interviewing Elauf. But the district manager said she shouldn’t be hired because the scarf was inconsistent with the store’s “look policy,” which Cooke had explained to Elauf consisted of things like proper makeup, nail polish and clothing.

It’s clear that the ruling will have an effect on employers as they try to train managers and supervisors on religious accommodations and discrimination. And, there are some practices that conflict with a work requirement or rule that might not be blatantly religious.

But it also points out the necessity of involving HR or company lawyers in this kind of situation. Cooke told her manager that she assumed Elauf was Muslim because of the headscarf. And there’s the lesson learned. Right then and there, the district manager should have approached a supervisor, contacted HR or consulted with attorneys.

Call it CYA, or cover your bases or just plain seeking further guidance. And that’s where training comes in. Anyone involved in the hiring process needs to know the guidelines and understand protocol.

Michael Droke, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney in its Labor and Employment division, noted via email: “The Abercrombie decision reinforces the importance of involving the human resources function any time a protected class is, or could be, involved in making an employment decision. The hiring manager in the case, Heather Cooke, raised the look policy question to her local and regional managers, but there is no evidence that the human resources department was involved.”

Managers are faced with hundreds of decisions every week. If you are in a position to train those managers, tell them in no uncertain terms that making a call or sending an email to check on a compliance or policy matter is the easiest decision they’ll make all week. 

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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