Tag Archives: Religion and Business

The Abercrombie Look

Staff at Abercrombie & Fitch Store, London (BBC)

Here’s an interesting case that reveals much about the way American mass marketers view religion and “diversity.” This week, a federal district court in California ruled in favor of Umme-Hani Khan, a Muslim teenager who sued her employer, the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, for religious discrimination. A&F fired Khan, whose job required her to restock clothes on the sales floor of an A&F store in San Mateo, because she insisted on wearing a Muslim headscarf, or hijab, on the job. The headscarf, A&F told her, was inconsistent with the firm’s “Look Policy,” a set of grooming and clothing requirements for employees.

The Look Policy is meant to project a consistent A&F identity to consumers who favor the brand–mostly kids between 18-22. You can see an illustration in the photo above, from A&F’s London store. Head coverings are out; shirts, apparently, are optional. A&F occasionally grants exemptions from the policy to employees who wish to wear religious garb or symbols, but only if the garb or symbols are not visible to others. Just judging by the outfits in the photo, that can’t be the case very often.

But back to Ms. Khan. A&F obviously fired Khan because of her attempt to exercise her religion. Under federal and state employment laws, though, a firm can fire an employee if accommodating the employee’s religious practice would create an undue burden for the firm. Here, A&F argued, allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would create such a burden. Allowing departures from the Look Policy would confuse customers and detract from their in-store experience. And consumer confusion would injure A&F’s brand identity and detract from sales. Simply put, allowing Khan to wear the headscarf would cost A&F money.

The problem was that A&F didn’t show that it had lost any sales because of Khan’s hijab. A&F speculated that consumers would be confused or irritated by the sight of Khan in a headscarf, but could point to no actual incidents. Nor did A&F offer convincing evidence about the negative effect employee headscarves had on sales at other clothing firms. On the record presented, the court ruled, there was no reason to believe that allowing Khan to wear her headscarf would pose an undue hardship for A&F . So Khan prevailed on her claim.

All this is straightforward employment discrimination law. What makes the case interesting is what it reveals about the mindset of mass-market retailers like A&F. Like many such retailers, A&F makes a big deal about its commitment to “diversity,” including religious diversity. According to its website, A&F recognizes the “25 different dimensions of diversity that make up who we are” (only 25?), such as “race, gender, family, sexual orientation, work experience, physical ability, and religion.” So it’s a little strange that A&F would fire a teenage stocking clerk who did nothing more offensive than wear a headscarf to work for religious reasons, and compound the PR mistake by litigating the case in federal court. What gives?

I can think of three possibilities. First, the people at A&F are clueless. Other recent PR disasters for A&F–like the suggestion that the firm doesn’t want heavy women wearing its clothes–render this explanation somewhat plausible, but I doubt it. You don’t become a successful retailer by being clueless. Second, the people at A&F are hypocrites. They talk a good game about tolerance and diversity, but are secretly bigots. This explanation is more plausible than the first, but still unsatisfying. I expect the people at A&F, especially the marketers steeped in our media culture, have internalized the diversity imperative. They really do wish to be “inclusive” and would be shocked to find out they’re not.

So here’s a third explanation. In our mass-market culture, “diversity” means something very specific: the right to purchase and wear (but principally purchase) the same products as everybody else. Wherever you come from, whoever your parents are, whichever God you pray to–whatever the precise mixture of those “25 different dimensions of diversity” that make you who you are–you have a right to the Abercrombie Look. To hold that diversity means something more than that, that it might require people to tolerate religious garb and symbols in the workplace, could be divisive and bad for business. And who knows where it would lead? Someone might actually try to wear a visible cross to work.  

The case is Khan v. Abercrombie & Fitch, 2013 WL 4726137 (N.D.Cal. 2013)).

Conference: Religious Traditions and Business Behavior (Oct. 31)

The Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland will host a conference on religious traditions and business behavior on October 31:

This forum explores two central questions in the relationship between the world’s major religious traditions and the business behavior of adherents to those traditions:

First, what do the world’s major organized religious traditions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism – prescribe about business and financial ethics and behavior?

Second, how and why have business and financial actors seriously compromised the leading religious traditions of their cultures?

By interrogating these two core questions, the conference will yield insights valuable to contemporary business and religious leaders about abiding questions such as: Do the scriptures and doctrines of these religions appear to have had a marked effect on financial behavior? Does religion appear to be a more potent or less potent influence than business ethics courses in fostering sound, ethical, and socially responsible financial behavior? How can religion best be promulgated to make financial behavior more sound, ethical, and socially responsible?

Speakers include past CLR Forum Guest Ron Colombo, who will present a paper, “Religious Liberty and the Business Corporation.” Details are here.

Vischer on Religious Liberty and For-Profit Businesses

You should make the time to read Rob Vischer’s new piece, Do For-Profit Businesses Have Free Exercise Rights?  One interesting feature of the paper is Rob’s engagement with the First Amendment institutionalism literature.  He makes the case for some line drawing, in his usual careful and thoughtful way.  Here is the abstract:

Americans are understandably troubled by the prospect of Wal-Mart and the First Presbyterian Church as conceptually identical free exercise claimants. As an expanding array of for-profit businesses sue to block enforcement of the HHS contraception mandate, there is a danger that our failure to distinguish them will weaken the protections for all institutional free exercise claimants. Except for some still largely uncontroversial questions of internal church governance, the “moral bedrock” of religious liberty is increasingly contested when invoked by institutions. Absent some categorical distinctions, we risk what Fred Schauer and others have called “institutional compression” through a process “of leveling down rather than leveling up.” Nevertheless, in the wake of Citizens United, courts may decide not to embrace potential paths of distinction. If the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter for purposes of free speech, it is tempting to say that the identity of the actor doesn’t matter for purposes of free exercise.

Foreclosing a for-profit business’s standing to raise free exercise claims entirely is not justified. However, in light of the differences between corporate political speech and corporate religious exercise, and in light of the enormous market power wielded by for-profit businesses in the provision of essential goods and services, including the paths by which to earn a livelihood, a court would be justified in interpreting free exercise doctrine to reflect institutional distinctions.

Resnicoff on Religion and Unethical Business Practices

Steven H. Resnicoff (DePaul University College of Law) has posted The Causes and Cures of Unethical Business Practices – A Jewish Perspective. The abstract follows.

The workplace seems increasingly characterized by unethical practices between and among employers, employees, customers, competitors and others, despite the fact that most leading religious traditions proscribe such conduct and many of the actors self-identify as religious. This paper examines this phenomenon through the prism of Jewish tradition. It identifies specific Jewish teachings that explain many types of misconduct and, where appropriate, it cites modern secular experiments that confirm these Judaic insights. Based on these teachings, the paper prescribes a series of steps that, if implemented, could enhance the integrity of business and financial actors. This is a working paper in connection with the Henry Kaufman Forum on Religious Traditions and Business Behavior sponsored by the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

Shopping on Sunday

Every year, it seems, Christmas becomes more commercialized. In NYC this year, we started seeing Christmas decorations in stores in October. In October. Christmas is starting to lap Halloween.

I was thinking about this when I read that the Catholic Church in Italy is working to repeal that country’s new Sunday shopping law. Earlier this year, in an effort to stimulate the Italian economy, the Monti government enacted a law allowing shops across the country to open on Sundays. The new law is opposed by a coalition including the Vatican, small shop owners, and some secularists who argue that a nationwide day of rest is in everyone’s interest. The Italian campaign is part of a larger movement called the European Sunday Alliance, a network of “trade unions, civil society organizations and religious communities committed to raise awareness of the unique value of synchronized free time for our European societies.”

The Sunday Alliance is not at heart religious . Sure, some Christians argue that Sunday shopping violates the Sabbath, but mostly the movement has secular goals, such as working less, putting a brake on commercialism, and spending time with family and friends. To be sure, small shop owners have an economic interest in ending Sunday shopping, since the practice disproportionately favors big-box retailers. But it’s not like the big-box retailers who favor Sunday shopping are being altruistic. They’re only advancing their economic interests.

The arguments for allowing Sunday shopping are pretty straightforward. Increased commercial activity means more wealth and greater tax revenues. More people will be able to find employment. And there is the matter of consumer choice. If people want to buy TVs on Sundays, why should the state stop them? Who’s harmed? Finally, allowing shopping on Sundays could be seen as a gesture toward religious pluralism. Not everyone observes the Christian Sabbath, and Sunday closing laws may create burdens for non-Christian businesses and consumers.

These arguments have carried the day in America. Notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has declared Sunday closing laws constitutional, most places allow Sunday shopping nowadays. Americans have become accustomed to the convenience and see nothing wrong with it. A movement to ban shopping on Sundays in America would go nowhere.

To my mind, though, opponents of the new Italian law have a point. Economics isn’t everything. It’s not unreasonable to think that, one day a week, society should forgo buying and selling, even if that means a reduction in wealth and tax revenues. (Tax revenues? In Italy? Who are we kidding?) In a culture as homogeneously Catholic as Italy’s, Sunday is the only realistic option. Moreover, it’s not unreasonable to think that Sunday store openings will create a situation in which observant Christian employees feel pressured to work, or that Sunday shopping will threaten traditions Italians enjoy. Perhaps Italians don’t want a society in which Christmas becomes, inevitably, the Biggest Shopping Season of the Year.

So, to the opponents of the Italian law, I say, Good Luck and Buon Natale. Not that any of this would affect us here at CLR Forum. We’re open seven days a week. 

Muller on Capitalism and Judaism

Princeton University Press has released a paperback edition of Capitalism and the Jews (2010) by Catholic University historian Jerry Z. Muller. The publisher’s description follows.

The unique historical relationship between capitalism and the Jews is crucial to understanding modern European and Jewish history. But the subject has been addressed less often by mainstream historians than by anti-Semites or apologists. In this book Jerry Muller, a leading historian of capitalism, separates myth from reality to explain why the Jewish experience with capitalism has been so important and complex–and so ambivalent.

Drawing on economic, social, political, and intellectual history from medieval Europe through contemporary America and Israel, Capitalism and the Jews examines the ways in which thinking about capitalism and thinking about the Jews have gone hand in hand in European thought, and why anticapitalism and anti-Semitism have frequently been linked. The book explains why Jews have tended to be disproportionately successful in capitalist societies, but also why Jews have numbered among the fiercest anticapitalists and Communists. The book shows how the ancient idea that money was unproductive led from the stigmatization of usury and the Jews to the stigmatization of finance and, ultimately, in Marxism, the stigmatization of capitalism itself. Finally, the book traces how the traditional status of the Jews as a diasporic merchant minority both encouraged their economic success and made them particularly vulnerable to the ethnic nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Providing a fresh look at an important but frequently misunderstood subject, Capitalism and the Jews will interest anyone who wants to understand the Jewish role in the development of capitalism, the role of capitalism in the modern fate of the Jews, or the ways in which the story of capitalism and the Jews has affected the history of Europe and beyond, from the medieval period to our own.

Call for Papers: Religious Traditions and Business Behavior at Maryland

The Henry Kaufman Forum on Religious Traditions and Business Behavior at the University of Maryland Business School has issued a call for papers on two subjects:

First, what do the world’s major organized religious traditions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism – proscribe about business and financial ethics and behavior?

Second, how and why have business and financial actors seriously compromised the leading religious traditions of their cultures?

Those who are interested in the conference can find more information here.  — MOD