* “If we like you, we’ll call you,” were words hanging in the air like daggers as Yakira Baruch, fashion student, and blogger left her interview with Bloomingdale’s at the Mall at Millenia in Orlando, Florida.
It was in the summer of 2014 when Yakira saw the job posting for Visual Merchandiser on Bloomingdale’s website. She applied for the job because she felt that she had the requisite experience and training to qualify her for the position coupled with her academic pursuit in fashion merchandising.
Within a few days of submitting her resume, and much to her surprise, Bloomingdale’s requested an interview with her on July 3, 2014. Delighted and excited about the possible role, she prepared herself by researching the company and making sure that her appearance and style would be representative of the upscale department store on the day of her interview.
When she entered the store, she recalled how friendly the store’s associates acted. “They were so kind to me,” she recalled. “I told them I was here for an interview, and they wished me luck.” One employee even escorted me to the elevator and went up with me to the third floor.” When she arrived, Yakira noticed another young lady whom she perceived was of Latin descent waiting for an interview as well. After a few minutes, Yakira was called to follow a Caucasian Human Resource Administrator, Stephanie Kovacs. “I entered the room, sat down, and introduced myself, and she started asking me questions about my background, and I told her I was in school for Fashion and Design Merchandising. I gave her my background as a store manager for Nine West, I told her that I had experience with floor sets, and working with styling mannequins.”
From there, according to Yakira, the interview took an uncomfortable detour. “Every time I would attempt to give a detailed answer, she would cut me off and ask me another question.” The interviewer then proceeded to ask her a standard interview question, What is one of your weaknesses? Confidently, Yakira replied, “I get very frustrated with myself if I feel that I could have done a better job. I tend to be a perfectionist when I want to do a good job. Whenever my hand touches something I always feel like it could be better so that can be a vice against me because I can create something that is nice and then I have to start completely over, it’s double work. My mind is always on pleasing the customer, making sure that they are happy whether it is a small or big project.”
During the rest of the interview process, Yakira noted that Kovacs displayed a hostile demeanor towards her when asking her questions, creating a hostile environment poised with discrimination and rejection. “Throughout the whole meeting she just kept cutting me off whenever I would talk, so I never got the opportunity to have a full interview. Every time I would tell her something that I am doing or showcase my knowledge about the stores brands [Kovacs] would cut me off with another question, and would never let me finish. She intentionally cut me off so I could not finish what I was about to say. She only wanted to hear what she wanted to hear so she could disqualify me for the position,” recalls Yakira. Despite Kovacs apparent unprofessionalism, Yakira continued to try to display her knowledge of fashion styling. However, according to Yakira, Kovacs, would not permit her to continue. Yakira wanted to explain her knowledge of visual merchandising to the Human Resources Administrator, but she did not receive the opportunity to state directly how she would follow corporate floor plans and how she would be able to use her talents as a stylist to add to the visual merchandising team.
“The best part of being a stylist is that you have a creative range over the corporate wants to be portrayed in the store. Visual Merchandisers are stylists, and they are aware of trends, designer textiles, and, of course, the customer. All these elements play into what the company wants to advertise. That all plays into designing a fashion scene, you have to know what looks good on display. What the customer sees is what they will buy. The company gives you a blueprint of what they want the visuals to look like, but there is some leeway for visual merchandisers to add some other selling items from the store that the manager wishes to push. But equally, you need to know what looks aesthetically pleasing in store. I was not allowed to share that with Ms. Kovacs since she would never let me finish.”
Yakira recalled another occurrence from the interview that made her feel that she was encountering discrimination emanating from Kovacs. In the latter incident, Yakira attempted to explain to Kovacs that her school was planning a fashion show at Leu Gardens. “She, again, did not let me finish, ‘Yeah, I went to that,’ Kovacs resounded, cutting me off. What I was going to tell her was it never went through. She lied; she never attended it because it did not happen. If she had allowed me to finish my statement, she would have found out that the event had to take place at our school, and we were in charge of doing the design for the whole setup because the location had changed.” To conclude the interview, Kovacs asked Yakira if she had any questions for her. “I asked her how long have you been working in this position? At the time, it was July 2014, and she said that she attained the position in March. So in my mind, I reasoned she had not been there long enough and probably was not trained that well. I told her that I loved Bloomingdale’s for years that I did one of my school projects on Bloomingdale’s. I told her how the store first started, and I asked her how long will I have to wait to hear something?” Her response was expressed in a rude and abrasive tone, “If we like you, we’ll call you.” Naturally, Yakira questioned what were the parameters for Kovacs to like her? Yakira further questioned that when she submitted her resume and received a request for an interview, Bloomingdale’s apparently liked what they saw of her when she presented her resume; they were aware of her professional experience and the fact she was currently in school studying visual merchandising. So what was the issue? “When she saw my name, Yakira Baruch, on my resume, she did not know I was African-American, most people assume that I am Jewish. Mr. Steinberg [Bloomingdale’s Human Resource Manager] is also Jewish,” affirms Yakira. Confirming her greatest fear, three days later, Yakira received an email stating that she did not obtain the job. “I knew when I left the interview room that I was not going to get the job. It was intuitively clear, Kovacs had no intention of hiring me.”
On the same day, Yakira called the number that was in the email to speak with Kovacs. “I was very pleasant and told her that I received the email she sent me. I inquired on how I could obtain the number to her Human Resources Director. Kovacs said that he was not in, and she said she was going to call me right back. I asked her for the director’s number, and she was like no I will call you back, I asked for the name of her director and she told me Michael Steinberg and she said she would call me right back. She placed me on hold, and I never received a call back from her.” Yakira hung up the phone and emailed her observation about the interview to Michael Steinberg, however, he failed to respond to her message. From there, Yakira posted her complaint on the Bloomingdale’s Facebook page, and that spurned Steinberg to reach out to her.
He replied, “Thank you for your observation and I will look into this. Soon after, Yakira filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Miami, Florida, that led to an investigation. In their report, Bloomingdale’s claimed that
“Respondent states that first, by your own admission, your passion was for styling clients and your role as a Visual Merchandiser you would not have the opportunity to work directly with customers/clients. Respondent states that for that reason the interviewer suggested that you would be a better fit for a sales role, where you would have ongoing contact with customers. Respondent states that secondly, although your resume indicated that you had experience with room displays, you did not convey this information during the interview. Respondent states that you also did not inspire confidence in your ability to work with mannequins or floor set ups. Respondent states that thirdly, it appeared from the interview that you may have difficulty taking direction due to your strong personality. Respondent states that you admitted to frustrations when clients failed to understand your vision and looks. Respondent states that in the Visual Merchandiser role, you would need to take direction from a variety of sources and would not necessarily have creative control over the look of displays or floor sets.”
Yakira counters, “My intention before she cut me off on numerous occasions was to give her a comprehensive understanding of my skills which would aid me in being an effective visual merchandiser. I couldn’t convey my knowledge of visual merchandising because she kept cutting me off, and she already made up in her mind that she didn’t like me and that she was not going to hire me. The report stated I had a strong personality which I took as coded language due to my African-American ethnicity”. The real issue that Yakira sought to address with the EEOC was Kovac’s last statement, “If we like you, we’ll call you”. After reflecting on the events leading up to the interview, Yakira notes that it is uncommon to receive an interview with Bloomingdale’s in such short time after submitting a resume. “It is tough to get an interview and be hired by Bloomingdale’s. So when I received scheduled interview with the department store, I knew they were impressed with my resume. They liked me on paper; they thought I was qualified, but in person you didn’t like me? What requirements do I need to fulfill that would make you like me since my qualifications alone did not meet that requirement?” A quick look at Stephanie Kovac’s LinkedIn profile, states that Bloomingdale’s no longer employs her as of August 2014, which was only a month after Yakira filed her complaint with the EEOC.
According to the company’s website, Macy’s, Inc. claims to have a commitment to diversity in order to service their diverse customers, they even state, “Macy’s believes that different perspectives are important to our company, and we benefit greatly from the individual strengths of each associate.” While that statement appears to be all-inclusive, the company’s past discriminatory actions reflect a different picture. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, a division of Macy’s, Inc., formerly known as Federated Department Stores, Inc., both have an extensive history of discrimination against not only their employees but also prospective employees and customers.
In 2014, Kayla Reyes, an Afghanistan veteran, applied for a sales floor job at Macy’s located at Fresno’s Fashion Fair Mall in February 2014. However, she was denied the job because she claimed the hiring manager thought her 4-year army career would make it difficult for Reyes to relate to the store’s customers, ‘Being that you’ve been over there, you wouldn’t know how to approach people. Once a customer’s in your face, you wouldn’t know how to do it. You wouldn’t know how to react.’ Reyes shared her story on social media, and it went viral, she received support from across the nation, eventually, a representative from Macy’s reached out to her to offer her the job, Reyes declined.
Even Hollywood actor, Robert Brown, who starred in his breakout role opposite Sean Connery in the film “Finding Forrester”, was not immune to Macy’s brand of discrimination. On June 8, 2013; Brown was detained by the New York Police Department after he had purchased a Movado watch for his mother that retailed at $1,350. Brown filed a lawsuit against the luxury department store and the New York Police Department for an undisclosed sum.
In 2009, a group of African-American employees of Bloomingdale’s held a protest on Black Friday against the department store “in response to current and former employee’s complaints of harassment and discrimination by the retailer. The employees, all African-Americans, say they experienced hostile and extremely humiliating acts of harassment and discrimination at Bloomingdale’s by its management that included verbal harassment, badgering, job discrimination, threats and race and gender discrimination.”
In 2000, Danielle Makedesi of Allentown was awarded an undisclosed settlement against Macy’s because she claimed she experienced discrimination because of her Arabic/Syrian ethnicity.
As for Yakira, she has presently retained legal counsel. Her advice for anyone who has experienced discriminated by a potential employer, “Make sure you report the incident to your local EEOC. The only way things like this will change is if people speak up and do something. This experience has profoundly affected me that I am encouraging my family and friends not to shop at Bloomingdale’s; I know I never will again. I have chosen not to buy where I cannot get hired.”