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Forever 21’s leaked memo: Faith at work?

Teen fast-fashion mecca Forever 21 has come under fire on social media after a leaked memo shared the retailer's plans to "reclassify" some full-time employees' jobs to part-time status, cutting their benefits and limiting their hours to no more than 29.5 a week.

Customers and other critics expressed their outrage with hundreds of comments on social media sites, threatening to boycott the store over the decision and calling the move an effort to avoid stipulations of the Affordable Care Act. The legislation requires employers to provide health insurance for all employees that work 30 or more hours a week.

In a response that the company has posted repeatedly on Facebook, the retailer says it "staffs its stores based on projected store sales, completely independent of the Affordable Care Act." The recent decision, it says, affects 196 employees, or less than 1 percent of all U.S. store workers. As part of the statement, Forever 21 also noted that it has promoted and converted 421 part-time store employees to full-time status since March of this year.

Still, that's not doing much to slow down the uproar. Even if Forever 21's move is just a simple business decision that affects a relatively small number of employees, it nonetheless has all the elements to make it an outsized target of online outrage. Combine not only a political wedge issue and a popular brand of clothing but a company that publicly identifies itself as Christian, and you're left with a particularly potent cocktail for viral attention.

That last issue--the perceived conflict some critics see between Christian values and the decision to cut workers' benefits--appears to be driving no small part of the online criticism being lobbed at the retailer. Forever 21 prints John 3:16 on its shopping bags, reportedly keeps Bibles at company headquarters, and was founded by the deeply religious Do Won Chang and Jin Sook, who don't shy away from their faith. "I hoped others would learn of God's love," Chang said through a translator in a CNN interview last year. "So that's why I put [the scripture on the bags]."

That perceived dichotomy has given critics an added gripe: "My, my, my how unchristian," wrote one man on the company's Facebook page. "A true Christian thinks of others first and is not greedy. Tell me, just how rich do you need to be?" asked another. "Jesus Christ would never, NEVER do this to anyone, ever," wrote yet another. You get the idea. (An e-mail to Forever 21's press office was not immediately returned.)

Of course, any company can suddenly find itself the target of a social media firestorm these days, whatever values its leaders may espouse and however big or slight the offending action might be. But the current furor Forever 21 is facing--and it is no stranger to controversy--raises interesting questions about what kind of upside a leader's public declaration of faith really offers. Does "shopping-bag evangelism," as it's been called, turn on more customers than it turns off? How much should founders' personal beliefs be part of the operations or marketing of a company? And most of all, when a P.R. crisis erupts, does a company that shares Bible verses with its customers risk falling further in the minds of customers than a company that doesn't?

Probably so. Whether or not Forever 21 thinks it has a responsibility to live up to a different set of business practices than its peers, many of its customers probably think it does.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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