Harrods’ motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique – All Things for All People, Everywhere and its status as a luxury brand has stood for over 150 years. More than 300,000 visitors pass through its doors every day.
It is not unfamiliar with controversy which, in recent years, has centred more on former owner Mohamed Al Fayed’s ongoing dispute with the British government, Royal family and a penchant for building shrines.
But in July, Harrods was back in the news for its treatment of employees.
Melanie Stark, a 24-year-old sales assistant in the Harrods branch of music retailer HMV, took her story to The Guardian, claiming she had been forced out of her job. After working there for five years, she was sent home last year for refusing to wear make-up – a condition of the strict dress code applicable to all staff.
The ladies’ code stipulates that full make-up must be worn at all times: “base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a ‘washing out’ effect).”
A couple of years ago a trainee police officer brought a claim against the Metropolitan Police after he was told to have his shoulder-length hair cut or face disciplinary action
Having been sent home on a further occasion and also told to work out of view in the stockroom, she says that the battle against her managers left her “exhausted, stressed and upset”, and a floor manager informed staff that he wanted the girls to be made up.
Stark resigned her position from the store, feeling it was time to move on and knowing that neither she, nor the store, would compromise.
Whether Stark will choose to pursue a claim through the employment tribunals for unfair dismissal or sex discrimination is yet to be seen. The tribunals and courts have previously dictated that a dress code should be looked at as a whole to determine whether it is discriminatory.
The Harrods dress code, for example, compels men to have their hair colour complementary to skin tone, be clean shaven or have full beards, with goatees or “moustaches of contemporary style” not permitted and sideburns no longer than mid-ear length or wider than one inch.
A couple of years ago a trainee police officer brought a claim against the Metropolitan Police after he was told to have his shoulder-length hair cut or face disciplinary action. The dress code being enforced was considered to be balanced in the way it treated the sexes and that he had not been subject to less favourable treatment.
Looking once again at Harrods, it must be borne in mind that we are discussing a shop that not only imposes a dress code on its staff, but also on its customers.
Visitors are requested to refrain from wearing clothing “which may reveal intimate parts of the body, or which portrays offensive pictures or writing” and does not permit any person entering the store who is wearing “high cut, sports or beach shorts, swimwear, bare midriffs, athletic singlets, cycling shorts or general sporting attire, bare feet or any extremes of personal presentation”.
In recent years this has resulted in bans for soldiers and Scouts in uniform, professional international footballers in training suits and, er, Jason Donovan.
Employers who impose any gender-specific dress code should only do so as far as is necessary, appropriate and reasonable to the role in question. Where misapplied, there is a risk of falling foul of the discrimination legislation, now contained in the Equalities Act 2010.
Employers may, however, wish to consider whether the traditional requirement for men to wear a suit and tie is actually necessary to achieve the level of smartness required
In one case, customer-facing employees were instructed to wear professional business attire, which meant a shirt and tie for men and women to dress “to a similar standard”. A male employee raised a claim of direct sex discrimination when he was issued with a formal written warning for refusing to wear a collar and tie.
The tribunal in that case initially determined that the man had been discriminated against because he was subject to a higher standard than a woman, but on appeal the decision was reversed.
The tribunal accepted that dress codes are lawful, in this case so long as the code was to implement a level of smartness that could only be achieved for men by requiring them to wear a collar and tie.
Employers may, however, wish to consider whether the traditional requirement for men to wear a suit and tie is actually necessary to achieve the level of smartness required.
Previously, the Court of Appeal had approved a dress code that required women to wear skirts to work. This was declared to be non-discriminatory so long as the detailed rules applicable had broadly the same effect on both sexes and in the case in point that was that both sexes were required to dress in a conventional way.
The case law therefore requires that employers ensure that any policies and procedures are implemented and enforced fairly and consistently across both genders. So long as an employer does this and is able to provide evidence of this, should an employee bring a claim of this nature, the employer will be in the best possible position to rebut any allegations of discrimination.
If a claim is brought against Harrods, it may be that they take some time to reflect upon its long-established motto. That said, wearing make-up seems a small price to pay for a staff discount at Harrods. Or is that just me?
This article first appeared at LondonLovesBusiness on 5 September 2011