Wet Seal's crying district manager

The details of Nicole Cogdell's firing are laid out in a lawsuit -- she believes she was fired because, as an African-American, she did not fit the blond-haired, blue-eyed image that the trendy chain Wet Seal wanted for its King of Prussia mall store. When she told me about it last week, there was a small detail that I kept coming back to, even after Frank Kummer and I finished writing about the case in the Inquirer.

"I was told by my district manager that I was being terminated," said Cogdell, who had been transferred to that store as a promotion from her previous store in Springfield, Delaware County. "She was in tears as she was telling me. We worked very hard together."

Imagine having that job. Of course, you can't assume that the allegations in the lawsuit are correct, but if they are, what happens when your company asks you to do something that is patently wrong? Keep in mind that March 2009, when Cogdell was canned, was a time of extremely high unemployment. No wonder the district manager was crying. Cogdell said the district manager was Hispanic.

Wet Seal, based in California, says that it promotes a diverse workplace with opportunities for all and will vigorously defend itself against the lawsuit. 

The firing occurred a few days after the chain's vice president for store operations visited the store. Cogdell's store got an excellent review. When Cogdell stepped up to introduce herself to the vice president, she said she overheard the vice president saying Cogdell wasn't the right fit -- the store needed a blond-haired, blue-eyed manager. Cogdell said she was humiliated, but excused herself gracefully and began to walk a "Figure 8," which is retail parlance for an organized passage through the store, allowing the manager to supervise all four-corners of the space.

Once Cogdell was fired, she didn't waste any time responding. Somehow she managed to obtain a copy of the email from the vice president that praised her store, while denigrating another. The manager of that store was later named to replace Cogdell, Cogdell said. Cogdell also immediately went to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. No wonder Wet Seal quickly called her back to work two days after she was fired. She was asked to return to the King of Prussia mall. "I agreed to return if they would address the issue of racism," she said. "When I returned on March 16, no steps had been taken to address the employees. I didn't feel I could work for a company that wouldn't address racism."

She finished her shift and resigned. 

These days, Cogdell, of Wallingford, serves as a community organizer in Chester, working with young people. It was the opportunity to work with young people that attracted her to Wet Seal in the first place. She had worked there ten years earlier, before rejoining the company in late 2008. "It was young and trendy. I liked working with the young people. It was very energetic and vibrant."

Media attorney Nancy DeMis represents Cogdell and two other African-American Wet Seal managers. They hope to achieve class action status. Cogdell and the others are also being represented by Brad Seligman, a California attorney who specializes in this type of case. His firm has set up a website with a press kit that includes the lawsuit itself, and a company memo (See exhibit one).

Here's an ironic twist: Look at the New York Times photo of Nicole Cogdell -- she has dyed her hair blond.