Settlement for Muslim Applicant Denied Employment Due to Headscarf
A federal court recently awarded a Muslim job applicant $20,000 in compensatory damages for her claim that she was denied employment at Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. because she wears a headscarf. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores Inc. (N.D. Okla. 2011).
Samantha Elauf applied for a sales job at an Abercrombie Kids store. The assistant store manager who interviewed Elauf believed that she was a good candidate, but was unsure whether it would be a problem for her to wear a headscarf at work. The district manager decided not to hire Elauf because of her headscarf, which he felt violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy.” This policy requires sales associates to dress in clothing and merchandise consistent with that sold in the store. The policy prohibits “caps” to be worn, but does not discuss other headwear. The district manager thought that allowing Elauf to wear a headscarf would cause other associates to think they could wear hats.
After rejecting Elauf’s application, Abercrombie began to allow more headscarf exceptions and had allowed eight or nine exceptions at the time of trial. Even so, Abercrombie argued that allowing exceptions to the Look Policy has a negative impact on the store’s brand and on sales, and would be an undue burden. Abercrombie offered as evidence of undue hardship one study conducted by an expert hired by the company on the effect of a Look Policy exemption. The court rejected the expert’s finding because the expert had not collected or analyzed data to corroborate his opinion, and the expert failed to consider the impact of the eight or nine exceptions that had been granted for headscarves. Also, damaging to Abercrombie’s case were other exemptions it had granted to its Look Policy.
“It is not sufficient to merely allege that an accommodation would cause undue hardship,” says MSEC attorney Tina Harkness. “It must be shown by persuasive evidence.”