This is an abridged version of an article that appeared on January 29, 2015, on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. To take advantage of all of the content, data and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at (800) 497-1737, email@example.com, or crisisresponsepro.com/signup.
In our previous post on Saks Fifth Avenue, we examined the need for legal and public-relations collaboration during litigation. It appears Saks took this lesson to heart and reversed course this week by placing its reputation needs before its legal strategy.
Saks on Jan. 26 withdrew its motion to dismiss a complaint brought by an ex-employee who said she was fired because she is transgender. The motion, filed on Dec. 29, argued that transgender people aren’t protected from sex bias under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The story may be the starkest example ever of the need to take public relations into consideration when designing a legal approach. It’s rare to see public backlash affect a legal strategy so dramatically, but Saks seems determined to defend its reputation as an ally of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community.
The controversial motion to dismiss — which was a reasonable legal strategy — garnered negative media attention once the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group in Washington, DC, pointed out what Saks was saying in its court document. Public anger toward Saks quickly snowballed into calls for boycotts and anti-Saks campaigns. On Jan. 15 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into the company’s treatment of transgender employees.
Saks’ statement explaining the withdrawal of its motion to dismiss vehemently denies the company discriminates against transgender people.
“Our position is, and always has been, that it is unacceptable to discriminate against transgender individuals,” the retailer said. “Saks does not, and will not, tolerate discrimination and legal strategy should not obscure that bedrock commitment.”
It says it will now fight the suit on the merits. To reinforce the claim that it doesn’t discriminate, Saks goes on in its statement to explain why it fired the employee, Leyth O. Jamal. That disclosure in itself is unusual but shows what an unusual situation this is. (Essentially, Saks says, a customer complained after Jamal and another employee used profanity on the sales floor in front of the customer, and both employees were let go.)
Saks is clearly trying to repair the hit to its reputation and decided in this case the legal strategy wasn’t worth the damage to its prestige.
— Rachel Gamson
Photo Credit: Saks Fifth Avenue
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