PROBLEM-SOLVING APPLICATION CASE (PSAC)
Seal of Disapproval
Wet Seal Inc. sells women’s clothes and accessories under two brands in malls and shopping centers across the country (and Puerto Rico). Under the Wet Seal banner, nearly 470 stores target younger female customers aged 13 to 23 years old. Its Arden B brand, through some 80 stores, targets women aged 21 to 39. These age ranges come from the company itself (at wetsealinc.com), which identifies Wet Seal as a “trend-right fashion retailer” and its target as “girls,” with its core customer at 16 years of age, who loves fashion and shops frequently, both in the mall and online. The company identifies Arden B as a “contemporary fashion destination” with its target as “women,” and its core customer at 28 years of age, who maintains a full social calendar and is always “dressed.” So far so good. But why would the company want to trigger a furor over outrageously callous and nearly unthinkable racist hiring practices? The issue went public in 2012 but has earlier roots.
Wrong by Race
For Nicole the trouble started in 2009 when she and her associates at the Wet Seal store in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, were preparing to welcome visiting Senior Vice President of Store Operations Barbara Bachman. After the meet and greet, was shocked by what happened next. “I later overheard her say to the district manager, ‘I was expecting someone with blond hair and blue eyes.’ She also said that I was not the brand image that Wet Seal wanted to project and the regional manager must have been out of her mind to promote an African American as store manager for the King of Prussia store.”93 said that her two associates heard the comment too. She was later terminated, and said her district manager told her she was being fired because she was African American. “I was completely embarrassed and humiliated. I was just shocked that someone would say something like that. . . . I never dealt with race discrimination at any of my jobs prior to this situation. I was just overall devastated.”
The company offered her a new position. “That job consisted of a demotion from my previous position,” she said, with “less pay and going back to the Springfield store. I declined the offer because the company refused to address their policies. I have always been a professional in the workplace, and I believe you should be judged by your performance and not the color of your skin.”
contention that racial bias was a matter of company policy has surprising collaboration. In a March 2009 e-mail to the Vice President of Store Operations and a district manager, under the heading “Global Issues,” Bachman wrote, “Store Teams need diversity—African Americans dominate—huge issue.” After observing a number of African-American employees working at a store, another senior executive ordered a district manager to “clean the entire store out.”94
In 2012 the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) filed v. Wet Seal. The class action lawsuit alleged that “top executives at Wet Seal directed senior managers to get rid of African American store management employees for the sake of its ‘brand image,’ and to hire more white employees.”95 Joining as plaintiffs were two other former Wet Seal employees: Saint-Hilaire, also from the King of Prussia store, and Kai Hawkins, who had worked at Wet Seal locations in California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs seek back pay, general damages, and punitive damages.
“This case is remarkable in part because the discriminatory policies are documented by former managers, but also in an e-mail from the senior vice president,” Brad Seligman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said. “There is nothing subtle here.”96 Elsewhere Seligman was quoted as saying, “They perceived that they would reach white markets better if they had more white managers. You have explicit directions from the very top of the company to terminate African American managers.”97
In November 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it had found that Wet Seal illegally discriminated against . In its statement, citing unusually blatant evidence of racial discrimination, the director of the commission’s Philadelphia office noted that Wet Seal’s “corporate managers have openly stated they wanted employees who had the ‘Armani look, were white, had blue eyes, thin and blond’ to be profitable.’”98 Note: By this time the EEOC had received over 20 complaints against Wet Seal.99
Resigned vs. Being Forced Out In the suit, Wet Seal claimed that had resigned her position for unknown reasons and therefore the company was not guilty of an adverse employment action. In contrast, the EEOC determination was that the hostile environment forced her to resign and that resignation was her only recourse.
In defending her e-mail in an August 2012 deposition, Bachman said she wrote her comments to stress the importance of having diversity in all stores. The EEOC determination noted that “witness interviews revealed that Bachman never expressed diversity concerns in stores with a predominantly white sales force but encouraged it because the sales force mirrored the community.”100 Bachman, by the way, left Wet Seal in 2011 and is now a retail consultant.
Race, Retail, Body Image
As of a recent visit to the Wet Seal site (wetseal.com), five photographs showed eight young women in all, with some models appearing more than once. All women were young, thin, and attractive; all but one model were clearly white. The one non-Caucasian model, who may be African American or of mixed race, appeared twice, once alone and once standing with another model. The site also has numerous links at the bottom of the page to stress the company’s commitment to diversity.
While Wet Seal does not publish the demographics of its customers beyond targeting specific age groups, a web analytics company purports to do just that. Quant cast Corporation routinely provides free analytics of web traffic to major vendors to induce the vendors to purchase its premium data services. Basically Quant cast extrapolates specific demographic data from known profiles developed from unique computer or ISP identifiers. With caveats that its statistics on wetseal.com are partial and include estimates, the stats are most useful as relative measures compared to the demographics associated with all web users. A recent tally by Quant cast showed wetseal.com traffic in gender to be 64% female (vs. 51% for the net overall). In age, the under 18-component at 36% was highest, followed by the 18–24 group at 28% (vs. 18% and 12% for the net overall). In race, visitors were 49% Caucasian and 26% African American, followed by Hispanic and Asian segments (vs. 75% Caucasian and 9% African American, again followed by Hispanic and Asian). The figures relate only to visits and not sales.
Employee View Meanwhile, current employee reviews of Wet Seal as an employer on the employer ranking site glassdoor.com do not mention racial discrimination, but some reviews complain of favoritism, especially on the basis of appearance.
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