When Company Policy Is Dishonorable

for the week of May 27, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

Men and women make mistakes. They sometimes do things that are simply disgusting and wicked. A given company or business may do the same thing.

Those of us who deal with those people or buy from those companies have the reasonable expectation that they will learn from their blunders. And it is hard to know in a given instance how long to bear with them. Some people act too quickly and "cut 'em off" when forbearance and help could have salvaged them. Others are too lenient and "cut 'em slack" long past the point that patience has become enabling behavior. I suspect we've all erred on both sides of this moral dilemma. Ever try to deal with an alcoholic? Ever try to figure out how long to deal with a supplier or client who has been unethical? It can be a tough call.

Abercrombie & Fitch has made that call easy. They have crossed the line between a legitimate business that commits a major gaff and one that proves it has a profit motive that consistently outstrips all sense of social conscience and corporate morality. They've crossed that line with me anyway. And I can only hope that many people decide they have spent the last penny with them for clothing or accessories no matter how popular the item or how good the deal.

You likely know the story already. Often under fire from feminists to fundamentalists for its over-the-top emphasis on sexy clothes, the company has been selling thong underwear for little girls with the words "eye candy" and "wink wink" printed on the front. There has been so much outrage that one report had Abercrombie pulling the thongs from shelves. A New York spokesman for the company said he had no knowledge of such a decision. It doesn't really matter. This isn't a mistake. It's just the latest in a series of deliberate bad-faith acts with the buying public that exhibits intolerable disregard for basic decency.

"The underwear for young girls was created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute," the company said. "Any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder." Can they really think the public is that naive or dumb?

Anybody who objects to racial slurs is too sensitive. Anybody who opposes selling nukes to al-Qaeda is anti-capitalist. Anybody who thinks it is wrong to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater is against free speech. And anybody who dares object to selling backless underwear to fourth-graders has a dirty mind. Right!

When money trumps ethics and common sense, we're in real trouble. Your influence in creating and maintaining integrity in the workplace matters this week.

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