Workplace Health & Safety

Honey Birdette under fire amid staff claims of inappropriate work conditions and sexual harassment

Dominic Powell /

Lingerie chain Honey Birdette has defended its workplace culture and says claims that its employees have been subjected to sexist work conditions and inappropriate expectations of how they should interact with customers are “mistruths”.

Junkee reports a group of current and former staff burned lingerie and protested through Melbourne Central shopping centre on Thursday, making claims the company does not protect its workers from harassment and discrimination.

The complaints include allegations that employees were forced to say “vulgar” things to customers and told to “suck it up” when they complained to management. There are also claims that staff were pressured by store management to work “countless hours” of overtime to make sales.

Read more: Honey Birdette pulls ads featuring Santa and lingerie models after advertising watchdog upholds complaints

In a petition, former Honey Birdette employee Chanelle Rogers called upon the chain to end its “sexist dress code”, implement policies regarding bullying and harassment from customers, and stop “encouraging the sexual harassment of their staff by customers”.

“I saw women mocked for daring to apply for a job at Honey Birdette,” Rogers wrote on the petition, which has over 5,500 signatures.

“I saw workers humiliated and threatened by management because they weren’t wearing perfectly applied lipstick all day, their heels weren’t high enough, and because they didn’t “talk the way a Honey should talk”.”

Many of the complaints stem from the Honey Birdette staff handbook, known as the “Little Black Book”. Seen by Junkee, the handbook includes guidelines regarding how workers should present themselves to customers, including requirements for high heels and nail polish.

The handbook also includes a series of greetings and phrases employees are directed to “master” when dealing with customers.

These phrases include: “Spank me if I’m wrong but…”, “Kinky Cats”, and “We are all purveyors of modern sauciness”.

However, in a statement to SmartCompany, a spokesperson for Honey Birdette said the company is “all about empowering women and supporting our wonderful staff”.

“We are disappointed about the mistruths that have been reported recently,” the spokesperson says.

Handbook “inherently sexist”, says lawyer

Employment lawyer and senior associate at McDonald Murholme Trent Hancock told SmartCompany phrases such as those listed in the Honey Birdette handbook are “inherently sexist” and potentially unlawful.

“Directing employees to say a phrase like ‘spank me if I’m wrong’ could easily be deemed unlawful under the Equal Opportunities Legislation,” Hancock says.

“If there’s a direction to say things that are inherently sexist it will be deemed unlawful.”

Hancock believes the type of direction displayed in the handbook is “not only unreasonable, but outrageous”.

“It is the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe and comfortable work environment,” he says.

Employment and workplace safety lawyer Peta Tumpey, from TressCox Lawyers, told SmartCompany the language used in the handbook should probably be “toned down”.

“The employer will argue from an employment law point of view that this is a term and condition workers have agreed on to act in a certain way,” Tumpey says.

“But from a harassment point of view, the employer would be quite wise to tone down the language.”

Tumpey also believes in this case, the employer may need to consider implementing a way for workers to alert management about customers they felt uncomfortable dealing with, noting that a lack of protection for workers could expose them to a breach in Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) legislation.

“It’s hard because we haven’t heard from the company, they could have a great WHS policy,” she says.

Is the Honey Birdette dress code discriminatory or “just part of the culture”?

While Hancock acknowledges Australian employers are able to enforce a standard of dress in a workplace with “reasonable direction”, he warns a dress code cannot discriminate between genders.

“If there is a direction for women to appear in a different way to men then it can be deemed unlawful and discriminatory,” he says.

However, Tumpey believes Honey Birdette’s dress code could be seen as part of the “theme” of the store.

“It’s a themed retail outlet, if you’re applying for a position there it’s sensible to expect you have to dress up and play the game a little,” she says.

“It’s not a standard vanilla business, so it should be an expectation of someone applying for the job.

“It’s just part of the culture they’re trying to develop.”

However, Tumpey says workers would have needed to be informed about the expected dress code during the interview process, and being told after being hired would be “unreasonable and unfair”.

Both Tumpey and Hancock advise a solid dose of common sense when it comes to employers dealing with situations like this.

“A lot of it is basic principle of equality. If you wouldn’t direct a male employee to behave in a certain way, don’t direct a female employee to behave that way,” Hancock says.

Tumpey advises business owners to listen to their employees and make changes accordingly.

“Just apply what you think is appropriate. If your employees are making noises, investigate and make changes where appropriate,” she says.

Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is the lead reporter at StartupSmart.

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  • Michael Ratner

    Perhaps – just perhaps the code is wrong and I quote…….

    dress code cannot discriminate between genders.

    “If there is a direction for women to appear in a different way to men then it can be deemed unlawful and discriminatory,” he says.

    REALLY. The mind boggles at the thought of a male wearing high heels and nail polish.

    And further it says… implement policies regarding bullying and harassment from customers, and stop “encouraging the sexual harassment of their staff by customers”.

    REALLY….. Now we’re suggesting that there should be a tribunal to review customers behaviour? Sort of a big sign at the entrance to all their stores that says,” if you are going to behave like a dill … then !!!!!!
    Political Correctness has just reached a new level.

    • Rohan

      That type of narrative is outlawed under our new PC-Social Marxism agenda. Off to the salt mines with you for some much needed “re-education”!

      • Michael Ratner

        Just read the Junkee report and reread the article.
        I only have one major concern now and that is THEY DON’T BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.

      • Zhompo

        There have been laws about sexual discrimination for forty years. Even if that doesn’t suit your white male Trumpesque view.

        • Claymore

          Now that is extreme discrimination talk, are laws onesided? rethorical question, of course they are.

    • Zhompo

      There is no “dress code” that demands excessive personal grooming, for men. That’s the discrimination. (DUH)

      The company discriminates so much they’d never hire a cross dresser. Your point is moot.

      There is a tribunal that reviews customer behavior, it’s called ‘getting sued’.

      “Political correctness” is nothing to do with decency. You’re questioning human decency.

      • Michael Ratner

        AS is evident there is plenty of human decency going around.
        I’m not questioning it. I’m actually questioning human stupidity.
        I don’t have to agree with the employer but heck I’d like to defend the employers rights to run his business based on I think the principle of – no employee is being held captive …. go get another job …. and maybe for the employee – you might be losing some potentially good staff who should be allowed to be successful without too many dogmatic conditions imposed.

        • “Link

          I guess it is a typical Aussie response Like their visitors to Asia who adopt the attitude “I have the money so I can pay for whatever service and from anyone I want, even it be a seven year old girl or boy, …. If they don’t like it they can do something else – you are not being held captive. I have the money and therefore I have the right to pay for whatever I want.”

  • Zhompo

    I would expect nothing less from Honey Birdette than to lie through their teeth. They act as if they are a law unto themselves. Unless and until governments deal with them directly, like Wicked Campers, or Shopping Centres kick them out, they will stifle criticism (by deleting Facebook posts and lying through their teeth) and continue to behave indecently.

    It’s very similar to the The Dorchester in the UK, which recently got successfully sued for forcing excessive grooming standards on staff.

  • Claymore

    Intersting issue. I have never heard of the the chain, but do they actually employ 5,500 staff and all of them are soooo unhappy and yet, still work there? Are they all unable to walk out and get a job somewhere else? Or are we talking about long past workers jumping on a bandwagon? Maybe there is a real point somewhere in all this, but, the rhetoric does not make sense. Retail is a difficult industry, like hospitality, but lets agree that hiring the “right” people is getting harder and hrader. Everyone wnats to tell a business who they can-and can’t hire-that is not possible when you have 300 applicants and one vacancy. Better to not hire at all, if you can’t get the right fit. Or… do you hre 1 and risk 299 lawsuits, becasue that is the way things are heading.

    • A

      I’m an ex employee… I worked in this company for 2 years and twice my resignation was “not accepted”. The average time an employee spent working at honey birdette was 3 months. We were bullied into not telling anyone about our harassment and emotionally manipulated, made to feel hideous when we weren’t “honey enough” and bullied by upper management daily. I had been in contact with fair work about daily unpaid overtime, was emailed once and then never received any other news. The workers have been discussing these issues to the head management AND fair work since I first started in the company in 2013.