Conveying brand authenticity to the public is a battle for any company. It’s a fight for perception, recognition, and above all, customer connection. As a company celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) has been around long enough to understand the power of being connected, staying in touch, and continually evolving with its customers.
This evolution and innovation has taken place across all aspects of the organization for more than a decade, including at the corporate level and in diversity and inclusion (D&I). At the head of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion is A&F’s vice president and associate general counsel Stacia Jones, who has been internal legal counsel with A&F for the past eight years, as well as external counsel with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP the eight years prior.
“I knew the disconnect between the company’s external image and its internal values was significant,” Jones says. “As external counsel, it was clear to me that the company really believed in its associates and wanted to do all it could to support them.”
This passion for support was nothing new for Jones, who recalls being an advocate for others since high school. When she was asked to become the head of D&I in November 2016, Jones insisted on maintaining the advocacy side of her work as the chief employment and health and safety attorney for the company.
Drawing the Map
A&F’s path toward inclusivity hasn’t been a straightforward journey. The early 2000s was a complicated time, with the company agreeing to a settlement in a major case in 2005 alleging discrimination. The agreement included a six-year period of specific actions designed to ensure diversity in recruitment, hiring, and promotion. That proved to be an important point in the company’s journey. A&F started laying the foundation for a robust, long-term approach to D&I by embedding it in the organization’s culture, using it to foster the longer-term representation of women and minorities throughout the organization, and supporting it through process and practice.
One significant element of the settlement was the 2005 creation of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. Jones was external counsel at the time, but the D&I department is something she has been inextricably tied to ever since. Once she went in-house in 2008, she started holding regular meetings with the D&I department, the stores’ organization, and HR to discuss employment discrimination, complaints, and lawsuits.
“We had regular meetings to monitor what was happening with our associates in North America and countries across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East,” Jones says. “We were determined to show our associates and our customers how important D&I was to us and how that was reflected in our policies and practices. Our actions mirrored what we said.”
The company implemented extensive company-wide training, some of which was conducted by Jones from the legal department. “I knew we were an inclusive company,” she says. “We had policies and procedures in place making it clear that we had zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, and we were consistently emphasizing the same to our associates through training. Working so closely with our associates and HR, I saw the passion associates had for increasing diversity and developing inclusivity throughout all aspects of the organization.”
A&F created multiple innovative D&I initiatives, including a hiring and review process designed to eliminate unconscious bias. The company now has a truly diverse population, with racial minorities at all levels of the company—more than 50 percent of the company being from a racial minority. In addition, the four most senior leadership executives are women.
Now, in 2017 as Jones leads D&I, the company is focused on continued innovation, expanded associate engagement, bolstering its culture of inclusivity, and broadening its D&I efforts to have more impact on customers, suppliers, and other business partners.
“D&I is truly part of our company’s DNA, influencing everything we do in stores, at our home office, and in our distribution centers,” Jones says. “It is our mission to ensure that each of our associates and customers feel included, respected, supported, and empowered. We are committed to reaching beyond A&F to make a true impact in our global community.”
Forging the Trail
Before leading the company’s global D&I efforts, Jones, working in conjunction with the general counsel, began the A&F legal team’s D&I committee. A primary focus of the committee is ensuring that all of its law firms not only understand and align with A&F’s culture of inclusion, but also live those values by having the same approach and practices in their workplaces.
“We track what our law firms are doing in the D&I space, determining who we can assist, and those we might have to cut ties with because they are not aligning with our D&I philosophy and efforts,” Jones says. “We recognize that, for all the talk in the legal field about the importance of diversity, real efforts and progress toward minority and female representation in law firms, and particularly at partnership levels, is still embarrassingly low. There’s a clear disconnect between the words and actions of many. Even with a small legal team, we believe we can have a meaningful impact on diversity in US law firms. As the client, we have the ability to dictate who works on our account. We can ensure that minorities and women are appropriately represented at our partner firms, and specifically, on our account team.”
For example, Jones is working closely with Vorys to materially improve minority representation in the legal field. “Stacia has embraced leading A&F’s overall strategy on diversity and inclusion initiatives,” says former colleague Jolie Havens, Vorys’ partner and its healthcare group chair. “The company is making tremendous strides under her leadership not just internally, but externally as well.”
By way of example, Vorys sends minority interns to A&F for the invaluable experience of working in-house at a client. Throughout the collaboration, the two work together on mentoring and other such programs for local law schools, as well as on various D&I-related speaking and writing engagements.
A&F and Vorys are also joining forces in 2017 to offer a learning experience through the legal council on leadership development. The learning experience will consist of thirty to forty minority and women attorneys from around the United States going to A&F’s home office in Ohio.
While there, they will participate in two days of networking, discussing important D&I issues in the legal field, and learning about A&F. The company also works with other leading law firms—such as Bricker & Eckler, Jones Day, and Littler Mendelson—on minority internship and lawyer programs.
The A&F legal team also holds itself accountable for its internal D&I efforts. In 2016, legal required that at least 50 percent of its interviewees be minorities, leading to the majority of the team’s 2016 hires being racial minorities, LGBTQ, and women.
The legal team also encourages its lawyers and staff to actively participate in D&I activities, both in and outside A&F, and sends its minority lawyers to professional development programming. Further, the legal team places a D&I objective on the annual performance evaluation of each legal team member that, according to Jones, “holds all lawyers and staff accountable for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace and our community.”
One could not look at A&F’s upcoming diversity efforts without realizing they go hand in hand with the betterment of youth. A&F has partnered with the National Society of High School Scholars since 2008, awarding scholarships totaling more than $300,000 to students.
Additionally, since 2013, A&F has supported anti-bullying efforts. Bullying is an issue that particularly impacts teenagers, the key demographic of its Hollister brand. Through global campaigns to drive awareness of the cause, and through the sale of product and round-up donations, the company has raised more than $1 million for organizations that work to stop bullying. The company has also worked with a psychologist and anti-bullying expert to create an interactive anti-bullying video and curriculum. The program is distributed free of charge to more than 20,000 high schools.
Not only is A&F working to promote and increase diversity in the United States, but it’s also navigating the waters of D&I across twenty-one countries. At the end of the day, Jones realizes that the starting point and road map for diversity differs in each of those countries. “We know it’s important to adapt our D&I strategy to every location where we conduct business,” she says. “We can’t approach D&I globally from a US-focused lens. We are working with thousands of associates outside the US to make sure our D&I initiative reaches and impacts our associates, customers, and business partners everywhere.”
Customers can already see the fruits of these efforts when stepping into any new A&F store. As the company has continued to focus on the customer, the store experience has continued to evolve, and is more welcoming and inclusive.
The well-known closed storefront mazes of A&F are a thing of the past. Long gone are the strong-smelling cologne, loud music, and dim lighting. Abercrombie & Fitch’s stores are open and welcoming, and they are focused on the company’s customers’ needs, as well as its associates—no matter who they are or where they’re from.
“We congratulate our friend, Stacia Jones, of Abercrombie on her recognition in Modern Counsel. We applaud her ongoing success and promotion of diversity and inclusion and look forward to continue working together.”
—John R. Richards, Shareholder