American Apparel's Hiring Scandal: Based on 'Looks' or 'Style'?

Dov CharneyControversy is once again swirling around the popular and seemingly ubiquitous clothing chain American Apparel. It's come under fire for its provocative ads, for the sexual harassment suits against colorful owner Dov Charney (none of them proven in court) and now for its hiring practices. A Gawker blog claims that American Apparel discriminates against ugly people and fires the overweight and unattractive.

According to Gawker, "a source tells us that American Apparel has a new hiring policy. For the past several months, they say, job applicants at AA have had their photos taken -- photos which are then sent to the e-mail address, where they are 'approved' by a nameless person for hiring. The applicant's résumé is a distant second when it comes to hiring decisions, our source says."

-- See the average hourly rate for a retail sales associate at American Apparel.

American Apparel doesn't deny the practice of reviewing photos of potential employees. In fact, a look at the company website reveals that job seekers are instructed to:

  1. Tell us where you would like to work
  2. Submit a letter of interest (resume optional)
  3. Submit a photo of yourself (pref. head-to-toe) dressed in such a way that reflects your personal taste and fashion sensibility. Please remember we are open-minded and are looking for individuals who are of all shapes and sizes.
  4. Let us know how to get in touch with you

Current employees are encouraged to refer their friends for jobs by snapping a photo of them ("full body, head-to-toe") and sending it into corporate headquarters. If hired, the employee who sent in the recommendation receives a $100 bonus.

But the disgruntled employee says that photo approval is required for more than just hiring -- it's also essential for promotion and raises. Gawker's source says that from time to time managers are asked to take group photos of store employees so upper management can decide who should stay, who should go and who should move up, exclusively based on looks.

AA CEO Dov Charney admits that some employees are assessed via photo, but claims it has more to do with "style" than "beauty" -- and if you don't understand what he means, he'll explain it to you personally. He's published his direct phone number, 213-923-7943, and e-mail address,, and is actually taking time to personally answer.

"What we do is natural, and it's been done for years. We hire the type of people we think will resonate with our customers. Who doesn't do that?" he argues. "This is a business where first impression is important. It's about intrigue, not beauty."

When asked if an "intriguing" senior citizen would be considered for employment, Charney exclaimed, "Of course! I think it would be great to have someone who looks like one of the Golden Girls working the cash register, calling everyone dear and treating them like a grandmother. When I was in Palm Beach, I tried to recruit a well-dressed, older British woman to come to work. She looked like Princess Di's stylish older cousin." Chances are, she didn't need the job.

It's the people who come inappropriately dressed for interviews that really get Charney's goat, and he says the photos reveal that. "If a guy comes in for an interview in low, baggy pants and a tank top, or flip flops, he's not going to get hired. No professional business in the country, where the employee is going to work with the public, would hire him. I mean, come on -- if you're wearing a woven shirt, guess what? You need to iron it!"

Excerpts from an official statement about the situation, issued yesterday, read:

"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... 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. The company legitimately reviews current photographs of job applications and employees to consider their sense of style and the way in which they present themselves. Through personal interviews, we evaluate whether they possess the skills and personality required to successfully sell our products. This is a standard practice among fashion-forward retailers."

You can judge for yourself the sincerity of this statement with a quick trip to the nearest American Apparel store in your area. The one closest to me, on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City (part of the notorious "Valley" in Los Angeles) revealed four trim, hip, helpful, attractive, ethnically diverse employees -- two males, two females. There were definitely no Betty White types (I'd be surprised if any of them was over 22), but I think the age has more to do with the product line and the demographic that daytime clothing retail positions attract. However, they were more than just pretty faces: They induced me to try on a couple of savory outfits, and I'm definitely not their demo.

What do you think? Is American Apparel making excuses for discrimination against the less attractive, or are their photo-oriented hiring policies valid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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