Harrods and Dress Codes

I’ve discussed dress codes before but the latest case to hit the headlines is, without doubt, one of the oddest I’ve come across.

A sales assistant at Harrods claims she has been “driven out” of her job over her refusal to wear makeup.

There are a number of interesting factors to this case, and on balance, I believe the employee has a case for constructive dismissal and I expect her to succeed if she does take it to a tribunal.

While Harrods had a written policy in place, they did not impose it for several years. This means that they in effect entered into a variation of contract by mutual agreement. Also, the code is one of the daftest I’ve seen for a long time. It is arguably equally restrictive for both men and women but insisting that women wear full make-up is out of touch with modern public opinion. How many young women wear full make-up these days? And, ladies, from a male perspective, less is definitely more on this one, trust me. Also, if an employee has sensitive skin that reacts to the layers of face paint, then what? Skin needs to breathe, plastering foundation, powder and blusher will inevitably clog the pores.

I can understand that the store wants to have a smart and professional image for its customer facing employees, but Ms Stark looks perfectly fine without make-up, so any dress code should relate to matters of dress. Anything relating to make-up should confine itself to what not to wear that may go against the corporate image –  oh, I dunno, full Goth White with black eye shadow, for example. Conventional and businesslike should be sufficient, leaving it up to the individual to opt for nothing at all, a bit of lippy and eye shadow or the full works if they choose.

Reading the code –  or the excerpts published in the Groan –  someone has been applying their own personal prejudices and imposing them on others. A man may wear a full set, for example, but a moustache is a no-no. Why? A neatly trimmed moustache is perfectly professional in appearance. Hair must be complementary to skin tone. What? While many women like to dye their hair, most men don’t, so that’s an absurd condition –  or are they required to dye their hair if they have dark hair with fair skin, as I have. Men also have to measure their sideburns –  they may not be wider than one inch (good grief!). And how many men polish their nails? I certainly don’t. Someone, somewhere in that store is seriously anal.

While it is perfectly fine for Harrods to insist upon suitable appearance for its customer facing staff, such dress codes need to have a business justification. Smart and businesslike fits the bill perfectly. A uniform, which is one sensible way forward for customer facing employees is a simple method of ensuring a consistent corporate image. However, to insist upon full makeup is a step too far. Also, from what I’ve seen of the code, there is an imbalance between men and women as there is not – apparently – a similarly restrictive aspect to the male requirements, so a case for discrimination would probably succeed.

Good luck to Melanie Stark. She deserves to win and I hope she takes the bastards to the cleaners. There’s sensible dress codes and there’s taking the piss. Harrods are very much in the latter camp.

Cross posted and edited from Longrider.

14 comments for “Harrods and Dress Codes

  1. Paul
    July 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Basically, they changed the ball-game without the consent of the staff. So, on balance, she’s right. It’s not as if she’s going into work dressed as a monster or anything like that and I’d wager that she’s probably perfectly presentable.

    So, unless Harrods can provide good evidence that goes against this, I’m with Stark.

    • July 10, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      So am I, all the way. The imposition is unreasonable and there is no rational business case.

  2. July 11, 2011 at 5:41 am

    I tend to think that an employer should be free to impose any working conditions they like on employees, including dress codes and make-up rules. If they want to say employees should work naked – and I’ve seen at least one place advertising for naturists only – that’s up to them. In turn potential employees should be equally free to decide not to accept a job there in the first place, which clearly they are. So despite the fact that Harrods is being petty and like you I think Melanie Stark looks fine without make-up (actually I think over made-up girls make them selves look worse, not better) I was on Harrods’ side right up to the point you mentioned that Harrods never bothered to actually enforce the dress code for years. That makes a big difference. If it came up in her interview that yes, there’s the old policy but it’s not enforced and really nobody takes any notice any more, or anything like that, then I hope she takes them to the cleaners.

    • July 11, 2011 at 8:01 am

      I wonder why they never enforced it? Perhaps Ms Stark disappointed in other ways, but not quite enough to justify her dismissal?

      • July 11, 2011 at 9:18 am

        According to the reports, there were no problems with her work. Quite the opposite.

    • July 11, 2011 at 9:18 am

      I’m with the employee here all the way on all counts. Remember that the employer is negotiating from a position of strength, consequently any contract of employment will be biased in their favour. This is particularly so in a time of high unemployment so the “well you don’t have to take the job” doesn’t really hold up. People take what they can and have to put up with the bad behaviour on the part of the employer to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table (voice of bitter experience here). That’s not a free choice, it is coercion.

      Ultimately, the exchange should be little more than time and expertise in exchange for money. Any extra impositions should be based solely on a verifiable business need – insisting on full make-up is not a verifiable business need and as I intimated in my post, could cause the employee skin problems. It is not reasonable for an employer to impose a contract of employment that may cause harm, even if that harm is minimal. I have a similar complaint with Sainsbury’s at the moment – more of which when I’ve moved on.

      So, yes, I hope she takes them to the cleaners, and employers start to learn that employees are not merely objects in their business empire and engage in more reasonable contracts.

      • PT
        July 11, 2011 at 10:05 am

        “well you don’t have to take the job”
        Try telling them that down at the Job Centre.

        • July 11, 2011 at 10:15 am

          Precisely 😐

      • July 11, 2011 at 5:55 pm

        This is particularly so in a time of high unemployment so the “well you don’t have to take the job” doesn’t really hold up. People take what they can and have to put up with the bad behaviour on the part of the employer to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table (voice of bitter experience here). That’s not a free choice, it is coercion.

        More true when jobs are more scarce than when they’re not, but I’d still say it should be up to the employer to set their conditions. If the best potential employees don’t want to compromise on some of those things it’s that company’s loss and quite likely their competitor’s gain. Yes, with fewer jobs about as there are at the moment there is a nasty coercive element to it, or discriminatory if the rules are designed to exclude certain groups, but I worry if that isn’t the lesser evil compared to yet more laws and regulations and state interference in what should theoretically be a free choice.

        In this case none of that’s a concern. Harrods simply moved the goalposts, it’s as plain as that. Completely unreasonable to have a long dead rule – minimum four years given that’s how long melanie Stark worked for without any slap on – suddenly brought to life and expect people to comply. That’s one step removed from unilaterally altering an employment contract, which I know happens too and is despicable.

  3. Rossa
    July 12, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    And surely NOT expecting the men to wear full makeup is discriminatory too!

    Quid pro quo, a woman should be allowed not to shave her upper lip and have a moustache if she wants to….at my age it has become a regular occurence to have to get the disposable out in the shower, sigh.

    Not so sure about the sideburns though 😉

  4. sara
    July 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    You contradict yourself in saying that a company can expect employess to not “go against a corporate image” by not allowing goth style makeup makeup for example. How is wearing goth style makeup deemed unprofessional and wearing non at all, professional? The image reflected by a woman wearing makeup of any variety or non at all, is a matter of opinion and you clearly have your own, so I don’t see how you can claim discrimination. As far as the rule not being enforced before, perhaps higher management hadn’t seen her not wearing makeup many times, and her immediate supervisors simply chose not to be as strict. I have known plenty of instances of certain things being tolerated by some management personel and not others at one company. Maybe because as you point out she was a good employee otherwise, they gave her a few chances, before approaching her. As anal as people like to say specific rules are, they ensure people know exactly what is expected of them. Words like professional, neat, business casual can have drastically different interpretations. Also, problematic skin does cause issues finding foundation (I personally am bothered by most, not all, but most creams and foundations I’ve tried) but lipstick and some eye makeup show you are trying and won’t aggravate skin issues in the vast majority of people.

    • July 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm

      I haven’t contradicted myself at all. The Goth example was just that, an example of what a business might decide unacceptable – if they were a Goth outfitter they might decide differently.

      Dress codes are fine. Indeed, I support the principle. However, when an employer seeks to impose his will on an employee’s body a line is crossed.

      As far as what is suitable for dress codes generally, legal precedent has made it pretty clear – the code must be clear, written down, preferably consulted with those affected and equally restrictive for both men and women. The law uses terms such as “conventional” so a business suit and tie for men and similar outfits for women – hair neat and tidy or tied back, for example. Insisting that hair colour matches the tone of one’s skin is patently absurd. I would have to dye my hair blond to meet that requirement.

      At present, an employer can still insist that people cut their hair, but I expect that to be successfully challenged sooner or later as it is an imposition on the employee’s body and public opinion is rightly shifting in favour of the employee.

      As far as the rule not being imposed, it doesn’t matter how this happened, in law it is a mutual variation to contract. Harrods won’t have a leg to stand on if it goes to court.

      • Paul
        July 21, 2011 at 10:24 pm

        Does that carry on to not carrying fat people, for instance? For instance, a strip club wouldn’t want to employ a BBW unless there was a specific market for it in that club. And a supermarket would probably prefer it that their customer service person was slim, outgoing and attractive.

        Where is the line drawn with all this? Can employers discriminate before or after the employment or not at all? i.e. We don’t want disabled/fat/whatever people working here? Or have the employers considered to have ‘accepted’ their prospective employee’s appearance at the time of interview?

        Just a thought.

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