Netflix doc ‘White Hot’ shows how a lack of diversity & inclusion can doom a brand

It’s Monday night. I’m in the mood for some food for my thoughts. Sometimes, it’s nice to watch a documentary that allows the time and space to learn something new and think. That’s the moment when I crossed paths with the new Netflix film: “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.” In only 90 minutes, they summarize how a brand that made a name for itself for being elitist, lost all their power by not learning to be better while the rest of the world was trying to improve.

Ligia Paoletti peoplepath.io senior sourcer and talent partner
Ligia Paoletti

It’s not at all strange to all us millennials how the world was run in the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. Sadly, we all need to admit that we probably bought or at least wanted a piece of clothes from this brand that was the brand of the popular kids. You enter a store and everybody seems to be the image of perfection. Perfection was sold to us during those years. Thank god so many things have changed since then, like the claims against the Oscars for the lack of people of color representation, the Me Too movement, and growth of influencers who are teaching younger generations to love yourself as you are.

There were so many things that A&F did that were wrong. We will not be able to go through everything here. As a peoplepath.io talent partner, I want to highlight one of the topics in the documentary important to my workplace: Diversity and inclusion.

As crazy as it might sound now, young people who really aspire to be part of the brand were left in the shadows because they were not considered “a fit to the company image.” A&F had created an idea that “all-American” meant white, skinny and wealthy. Managers and recruiters were forced to hire and give opportunities to people based on their images and not their skills. During the documentary, we even have the opportunity to hear that a performance review to assign hours wasn’t based on actual performance — such as sales numbers — but on the “coolness” and “beauty” of the employee.

Netflix shows us some of the discrimination claims that A&F faced. In 2004, the brand agreed to pay a multi-million dollar settlement to a group of Asian, Latin and Black ex-employees. The few people of color who were employed by this brand, were usually assigned night shifts or given the jobs where they would be seen the least. These employees were condemned based on their appearances, instead of receiving opportunities based on their talents.

In 2008, Samantha Elauf’s filed a lawsuit. She was rejected by A&F because she wore a head scarf as part of her beliefs and this was considered a violation of the company’s infamous “look policy.”

There is one case that is not mentioned during the documentary: the case of Riam Dean, who was fired from a London store for showing his prosthetic arm, as it “didn’t fit the policy image that the company had.” A&F was forced to pay roughly 8,000 pounds (nothing for a brand of that size). And the worst part, this case was 5 years after the multi-million dollar settlement.

This led to a Consent Decree, which ordered, among other things, that A&F name a Vice President of Diversity. The purpose of this all was to train hiring authorities in diversity topics and change recruiting efforts to have a more diverse workforce. Of course, A&F didn’t take it seriously. They used it to clean up their image.

A good example of that is when one of the interviewees describes how the higher you go in the company’s hierarchy, the whiter it gets. A good example of not walking the talk. Even with the new position, the company still had issues regarding the lack of representation, which translated into the loss of business opportunities as A&F continues to repel potential customers. Not to mention the loss of talented employees who could help A&F thrive with their ideas and knowledge.

Today, the brand’s site says: “We are committed to embracing diversity and inclusion at Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Creating an inclusive atmosphere and experience for our customers and associates, across our global organization, is a top priority for our brands.”

As talent specialists, it is our challenge and responsibility to make sure that our companies are walking the talk, that they are making real efforts to have a diverse workforce. Different mindsets, knowledge and ideas helps businesses to have better results. We all need to work in creating products and solutions bigger than each of the team members.

Representation matters and helps your business.

Ligia Paoletti holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, and a Master’s degree in Applied Economics. She specializes in Human Resources with a passion for the tech industry. As a talent partner and senior recruiter at peoplepath.io, she connects talented employees with dynamic companies.

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