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Abercrombie & Fitch’s Diversity Journey
 

By Pamela Babcock  8/2/2011
Todd Corley

NEW YORK—It wasn’t difficult spotting Todd Corley, chief diversity officer for clothier Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), at Working Mother Media’s 2011 Multicultural Women’s National Conference held here July 20, 2011.

In a sea of “suits” at a Times Square hotel, Corley was dressed nearly head to toe in Abercrombie, from his jeans and oxford shirt to his cardigan “letterman” sweater.

“If I go to an event where I’m representing A&F, I can’t wear a suit,” said Corley, a self-described “Gen Xer” who declined to disclose his age. “I’m sure it would raise eyebrows and the question, ‘Is that what you sell?’ ” To wear anything else to anything but a black-tie event “would be odd for me personally,” he added. “We all wear our products, every day.”

Abercrombie has long had a “look policy” that requires sales associates—called “models”—to dress in clothes consistent with the ones sold in its stores and to adhere to an appearance code. In 2004, after the company settled a $50 million class-action lawsuit from former employees who claimed race, national origin and gender discrimination, the company agreed to institute a range of policies and programs to promote diversity.

Yet as recently as July 15, 2011, the company made headlines again, as SHRM reported previously, when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that a federal judge in Tulsa, Okla., ruled that Abercrombie committed religious discrimination for refusing to hire a Muslim teenager in 2008 because she was wearing a hijab, or religious headscarf.

Although Corley declined to comment on the case, he said the company’s diversity initiative has mechanisms to create new policies and tweak old ones. The company’s Look Policy Committee meets regularly and works to make sure the policy’s statements “are mindful of differences, whatever they are,” Corley said.

When the company started seeing a “large increase in applicants from different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” it revisited some of the policy’s language.

Over the years, Corley said, the challenge has been “making sure that we are true to our brand because people expect a consistent shopping experience regardless of where our store is located.” But, he added, “that trueness cannot override our awareness that there are differences.

“We don’t believe that there are things that we are doing that are discriminatory or inappropriate because that is not our intent,” he continued. “So if there are things that are misunderstood or that we could do differently, there are measures and processes in place to keep up with that.”

From Finance to Diversity

Corley was born in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island, received a bachelor’s degree in finance from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and was an INROADS intern working in finance with United Technologies’ Carrier Corp. while in college. He went on to get an MBA from Georgetown University’s The McDonough School of Business, then spent six years as a senior consultant and area leader in Towers Perrin’s Global Diversity and Change Management Practice in Manhattan.

Corley later worked for two years as senior manager of diversity for Starwood Hotels & Resorts before joining Abercrombie in 2004 as its first corporate officer in charge of diversity and inclusion. “They said, ‘We want to create a diversity office—and you’re the person for the job,’ ” Corley recalled.

Building a Strategy

Corley’s first step was to develop a strategy around diversity. “We didn’t have a common language of what it meant, and there wasn’t an awareness of how it impacted business,” Corley said.

“Since day one … it was an intense pursuit to make sure people got it,” Corley said. “And I haven’t let up on it.” He added that he gets plenty of support from Chairman and CEO Michael S. Jeffries, to whom he reports. “[Jeffries] says to me annually, ‘Don’t take your foot off the pedal. Keep pushing this work because it’s important to us.’ ”

The company has made significant strides. Its diversity and inclusion program now focuses on six key drivers, he explained: employee engagement, communication, training and education, measurement and accountability, leadership commitment, and policy integration

Abercrombie’s executive diversity council consists of senior vice presidents and above from a cross section of business units. In 2010, Abercrombie created a diversity council of district managers and recruiters to oversee implementation of the diversity strategy in stores, while a council of HR leaders and line managers concentrates on the company’s distribution facilities.

Corley said the company has seen marked improvement in the diversity of in-store staff. In 2004, fewer than 10 percent of employees at its 800 stores were people of color. In 2011, Abercrombie had 1,100-plus stores, and more than 53 percent of its store associates are people of color, he said. And the in-store percentage of nonwhite “models” has quadrupled.

“When you walk into an A&F store now, you’re much more likely to see people who are racially and ethnically different than yourself,” Corley said.

Soon after the 2004 lawsuit settlement, Abercrombie installed kiosks in stores companywide to track job applications and monitor hire rates. The company forged several partnerships to reach a larger audience of potential hires. The National Society of High School Scholars runs the Abercrombie & Fitch Global Diversity Scholarship Program to recognize student leaders globally who advance diversity and equality.

Building relationships on college campuses with high percentages of students of color is critical, according to Corley. In 2010, ahead of a store opening in Hampton, Va., near Hampton University, a historically black institution, Abercrombie recruiters hosted a reception for student leaders and the university president to introduce the brand and talk about job opportunities.

Internally, the company hosts a biannual Diversity Week and an annual Diversity Champion Program—a four-month, metrics-based contest during which the company works to uncover true diversity champions. Hiring statistics, rankings on inclusion surveys and a blind vote are part of the program, Corley explained.

Staff and Management Style

Corley has a staff of nearly 40 people, the majority of whom are recruiters for stores. “When I came to A&F, there was buy-in that I would oversee the recruiting side of the stores’ organization because it would give me line of sight into how we could emphasize diversity in recruiting,” Corley explained.

His staff includes two senior managers of diversity, one focused largely on stores and the other focused on the home office and distribution center; a director of recruiting who oversees recruiters domestically and internationally on the store side; and a specialist who tracks metrics and is working to create a supplier diversity program.

Corley said he is candid about feedback. “If I really believe you’re falling short on something, you’re going to know from me. You’re not going to hear about it from somebody else,” Corley said.

“At the end of the day, I get a lot of inspiration from people who may be right out of college,” Corley said, “because, for me, the notion of being a diversity practitioner is being inclusive in everything that you do and everything that you manage.”

Corley describes himself as involved, fair and visionary: “I like big-picture stuff,” he said, such as considering how to implement the strategy outside the U.S., where expansion is under way. “We’re trying to get the conversation abroad started around diversity and what it means in relevant terms,” he explained. “Even by country, it looks different.”

To educate employees domestically and internationally, the company launched Building CulturalDexterity, a training program that teaches participants how to lead across cultural differences, filter business decisions through different value lenses and respond to expectations from people who might have grown up with different experiences.

Looking Ahead

Corley said that if you ask anyone in Abercrombie’s stores what diversity means, he would be surprised “if you found anybody who didn’t say that it has had a positive impact on them and how they look at the world around them.”

And that’s what keeps Corley going: “It’s about creating a sense of expectations that this is about how the society that we live in should be. I don’t look at this as work. I look at it as paying it forward, if you will.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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