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.
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.