The application process for roles at lingerie chain Honey Birdette asks job seekers to put their “best stiletto clad foot forward” in a video instead of submitting their resume, and prospective employees are asked to observe the “Honeys” in store to ensure the outfits they wear to interviews are in line with company standards.
According to one employment lawyer, video applications like the one used by Honey Birdette raise a number of questions for employers around discrimination when hiring.
Last week Honey Birdette came under fire after employees went public about what they claim to be inappropriate work conditions at the retailer. When asked for a response to the allegations, the retailer told SmartCompany the claims were “mistruths”.
However, one job applicant who completed the first stage of the Honey Birdette recruitment process earlier this year told SmartCompany she did not attend an interview after the tone of the process completely changed her opinion of the “empowering” brand.
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The company careers page says “we are always looking for red pouted bombshells to join our exclusive Honey fleet”, and asks job hunters to upload a one-minute video that is “sassy and snappy”.
“They ask in the video to say what it means to be a Honey and I said things like “empowering women”, which I don’t think that’s what after,” says the applicant, who spoke to SmartCompany on the condition of anonymity.
The job hunter had never been inside a Honey Birdette store but was familiar with the brand, which she believed to be about women taking charge of their sexuality.
She uploaded a video at 8:00pm one evening, and by 9:30am the next morning had received a phone call from Honey Birdette inviting her in for an interview.
The speed of the response sent “alarm bells ringing”, the candidate says, because she had never received such a quick response from a job application.
Her hesitations about the role intensified after company made contact via phone.
“It was when they called me that they told me what to wear,” she says.
“They said, ‘go and have a look at the Honeys and see what they wear’.”
The applicant was told she had to attend the interview is specific attire: “The signature red lip, they kept saying, stilettos,” the applicant says.
It was at that point the job seeker started to revaluate the company’s messaging around empowerment. Her family and friends advised her against attending the interview, saying they had never heard of such specific requirements for appearance being enforced in an interview process.
“My family and friends happened to be in Melbourne and said ‘do not go to that interview’. All my friends were shocked,” she says.
“I’ve never been told what to wear [to an interview] before, and I’ve never been told ‘be a honey’.”
Public pressure continues to mount on the Honey Birdette brand, with a petition from the Young Workers Centre, which calls for the company to end its dress code and enforce policies for dealing with bullying and harassment, close to its 7,000 signature target.
SmartCompany contacted Honey Birdette this morning to clarify whether the company asked for retail experience or to see a CV when interviewing candidates, but did not receive a response prior to publication.
Companies must show “a look” is needed for a role, says lawyer
Workplace lawyer Peter Vitale says video applications like the one for Honey Birdette highlight a number of important questions around discrimination in the recruitment process.
“The first and obvious thing is whether or not it amounts to sex discrimination, because it may well have the effect of excluding men from applying,” he told SmartCompany.
“That might be overcome if they can demonstrate a particular need for them to employ women only, for instance, for reasons of decency. For some roles, it seems like it would be a legitimate thing for them to do.”
However, Vitale says if a company was to refuse to hire an individual on the basis of what they looked like, it could be found to be unlawfully discriminating.
“In terms of whether or not it might otherwise constitute discrimination, for example, on the basis of appearance—which is a basis of discrimination under Victorian law, and we know there have been other womenswear retailers who have gotten into trouble for advertising for employees with a certain looks— if they refused to employ someone on the basis that they didn’t look right, it would be necessary to show that a particular look was necessary for the purpose of the role,” he says.
However, as for whether an application process itself can be seen as sexual harassment, Vitale says this area is complicated for job ads.
“In terms of sexual harassment, I hesitate to say there is any action there,” he says.
“The ad is not directed to any particular individual. It’s not behaviour that’s imposed on any one [individual]. In itself, given that it’s before any employment actually occurs, you’d query whether it’s capable of constituting sexual harassment.”
The issue for companies like Honey Birdette in these cases, however, is they need to prove that a particular appearance is necessary for employees to complete their jobs to avoid the request being discriminatory, Vitale says.
“I guess you can understand it in terms of if they were employing models, but employing shop assistants might be more difficult,” Vitale says.
“The difficulty that they face is demonstrating why a particular look or a uniform is appropriate for their operation.”