Wet Seal Charged with Favoring Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed Employees

Wet Seal has been charged in California federal court for discriminating in favor of blond-haired, blue-eyed employees, as reported by the Los Angeles Times this week.
The suit, Nicole Cogdell et al v. The Wet Seal Inc et al, was filed in the Northern District of California last week and alleges that the California-based retail chain had a company-wide policy of discriminating against African American managers.
The complaint was filed by three former managers of the chain on behalf of all similarly situated managers who had been discriminated against in hiring, firing or promotion because of their race. With 550 stores across the country, there are up to 250 managers employed by Wet Seal who may be covered by the complaint, exposing Wet Seal to perhaps tens of millions of dollars in liability.
The complaint presents smoking gun evidence of discrimination by Wet Seal that will be hard for the chain to counter. The plaintiffs have produced copies of e-mails between high-ranking executives evidencing disdain for African American managers and worry that dark-skinned workers would tarnish the “image” of the brand. Plaintiffs have produced testimony that CEO of Wet Seal, Ed Harris, recommended district managers “diversify” their workforce by removing African American managers. Likewise, the Director of Human Resources, Patricia Sprowell was overheard by multiple salespeople stating that managers would have to “figure out a way to get rid of” African American managers. Another Vice President of the store was noted as expressing similar sentiments as well, in one case recommending a store manager only hire workers who looked more like a particular blond employee. The consistent abuse that African Americans faced by upper management was to such an extent that store managers would have African American employees hide in the back of a store or go on lunch break whenever there was a scheduled corporate visit.
Plaintiff Nicole Cogdell presented the most damning evidence of all, however, in the form of an e-mail from the Senior Vice President of Operations following a trip to a Pennsylvania store Cogdell managed. The Senior Vice President in question, Barbara Bachman, already had a history of discrimination at Wet Seal against African American workers. Cogdell’s complaint set out evidence that in 2008 Bachman had demanded that a District Manager in another region “clean out” a store by firing all its African American managers. In other instances Bachman had made comments to certain managers that they “lighten up” their workforces. In February 2009, when Bachman made a surprise visit to Cogdell’s store, she was shocked to see that Cogdell, who she had earlier approved hiring was actually African American. Cogdell claims that once Bachman saw she was African American, she commented that managers were supposed to be “blond and blue-eyed” and that Wet Seal had been out of its mind to hire her.
A number of other co-workers overheard Bachman’s complaints and were upset, but Bachman did not apologize. Cogdell called a district manager the same day to complain, but she alleges she received little response and no apology. When Cogdell insisted on some official action to counter the hostility and discrimination at Wet Seal she was fired, less than one week after Bachman’s official visit.
Cogdell’s case is just one of several alleged in the complaint, and plaintiffs claim there are dozens of more stories from other managers in Wet Seals across the country who faced similar humiliation. If this was not evidence enough of a pattern and practice of discrimination at the chain, there is written e-mail evidence of the company’s complete disdain for its African American workers. For example, Bachman soon after her visit to Cogdell’s store wrote in an e-mail to a colleague of her disappointment at what she found: “Global Issues . . . Store teams – need diversity/African American dominate – huge issue.”
This Wet Seal complaint is sure to be a headache for the company, which is already facing financial difficulty. After the complaint was filed this week, the $3.15 stock price dropped 5 cents. This case, with its smoking gun evidence at last demands serious discussion of the continuing issue of racial discrimination at the highest level of retail work in our nation. The outrageous nature of this executive conduct by one of the largest retail chains in our country is evidence enough that such discussion is long overdue.

In the Media