Abercrombie settlement: a lesson in hiring for ‘looks’

In what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) labels a "landmark" settlement, retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is shelling out nearly $50 million to settle three employment discrimination suits.

The lawsuits alleged that Abercrombie discriminates against minorities and women by encouraging its 700 stores to hire sales reps who maintain the "A&F Look" of white, male and preppy. Employees who didn't have the look were demoted, moved to backroom jobs or fired, the complaints said.

Employment attorneys say the cases represent a different twist in job-bias charges. Typically, discrimination suits focus on age, race or gender. The Abercrombie cases targeted the company's brand-marketing process through its hiring: a kind of "image" discrimination.

The message: Very few jobs satisfy the requirement that "looks" are a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) necessary to perform the job. One exception: If you're hiring models, you could argue that a certain appearance is a BFOQ. But if you're simply trying to make employees part of your marketing image, don't allow that goal to trample on age-, race- or sex-bias laws.