American Eagle Outfitters, that bastion of collegiate clothes suitable for going to class and hanging out at football games, has become an unlikely symbol in the battle for equal treatment of transgender job applicants.
The South Side-based teen retail chain has worked out a settlement with the New York attorney general’s office that includes revising companywide policies on hiring, as well as instituting formal training programs for staff on the issue.
"We applaud American Eagle for taking leadership on this critical issue," said Irene Tung, supervising organizer with activist group Make The Road New York, in an e-mail. "The steps they are taking will make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of job-seekers who have been turned away because of their gender identity or expression. We hope other companies follow their lead."
The activist group began trying to document discrimination in the hiring of transgender individuals in 2008 by sending two pairs of testers into retail establishments in Manhattan. Testers were chosen for similarities in ethnicity, gender, age and even schooling. They were, according to the group’s report on its study, trained in proper interview techniques.
According to the group’s report, the transgender testers were instructed to "explicitly inform store managers and interviewers of their transgender status whenever feasible." Among the places they applied were Trader Joe’s, Nine West and Kenneth Cole. None of those offered jobs to the transgender applicant, but they didn’t always offer jobs to the other tester either. Dean & Deluca offered both applicants jobs on different occasions. Virgin Megastore offered a job to only the transgender applicant.
Both American Eagle and J. Crew turned down the transgender applicant twice and twice offered the other applicant a job, according to the Make The Road report, and the activist group filed complaints with the attorney general’s office.
In its settlement agreement, American Eagle didn’t admit wrongdoing. The company said in a prepared statement that it receives hundreds of applications weekly and that it would have liked to have seen more information to understand exactly why the testers might not have received offers.
The compromise was a way to avoid further expense and distraction, the company said. In addition to revising company policies and instituting training, American Eagle updated its standards for personal appearance to avoid any mention of gender appropriate clothing. The company said it was in the process of doing that anyway.
Meanwhile, the activist group is still working on the retail industry. "We plan to continue a public campaign targeting J. Crew to pressure them to change their policies," said Ms. Tung.
Retailer J. Crew did not respond to a request for comment.