A law student with a prosthetic arm was forced to work in the storeroom of the clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because she did not fit with the company's strict "looks policy", a tribunal heard yesterday.
Riam Dean, 22, claims that after starting work at the store on London's Savile Row in May last year, she was initially allowed to work on the shop floor and granted special permission to wear a cardigan to cover the join in her arm.
But she says she was later removed from her sales position and made to work in the storeroom, out of the view of customers, because the cardigan did not adhere to the "looks policy" – a written dress code which stipulates rules on aesthetics such as hairstyle, length of fingernails and forbids facial hair. Inconspicuous tattoos are acceptable only if "they represent the Abercrombie" look.
Miss Dean told the central London tribunal that she felt "humiliated" and "questioned her worth as a human being" before quitting her job. She said: "I had been bullied out of my job. It was the lowest point I had ever been in my life."
She said that she "wasn't the same person," adding: "I didn't want to socialise. If I did go outside the family home I felt so self conscious I would cover up and wear long cardigans despite it being summer.
"I knew I would need another job, but I couldn't face rejection all over again. I began to assume that my arm would always cause me such trouble. I was always prepared for children to be curious about my disability, but to be faced with adult bullying, no one could have prepared me for such debasement."
Miss Dean, who was born without her left forearm, is suing the retailer for disability discrimination and is thought to be seeking about £25,000 in compensation for her treatment as what she described as Abercrombie & Fitch's "oppressive regime". Her legal team would not comment on the sum.
The student, from Greenford in Middlesex, broke down in tears as she explained how Abercrombie & Fitch "used the 'looks policy' and the wearing of the cardigan as an excuse to hide me away in the stockroom".
"I knew then that I was being treated differently and unfairly because of my disability, she added. "Having visible tattoos breaks the 'looks policy' and yet I've seen a worker with a tribal arm tattoo which is very noticeable and yet Abercrombie allowed him to work on the shop floor. Clearly their reasoning goes far deeper and I'm sure it's not the cardigan which breaks the looks policy, it's the disabled label which does.
"Abercrombie were asking the impossible. Like the colour of my skin, I was born with a character trait I am unable to change, thus to be singled out for a minor aesthetic flaw made me question my worth as a human being."
Akash Nawbatt, representing Abercrombie & Fitch, argued that Miss Dean had "exaggerated" the effect her experience with the company had on her and claimed her problems at the store stemmed from long-standing anxiety issues. The hearing continues.