Culture

Honey Birdette Employees Were Told To Respond To Sexual Harassment With Flirting

"The term 'boys will be boys' was the response to any form of harassment."

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Last week former employees of Honey Birdette, an Australian lingerie chain, publicly accused the company of encouraging sexual harassment.

Staff spoke about their experiences of sexual harassment and intimidation by customers and blamed the company for enforcing a sexist dress code.

Since that story was published, Junkee has spoken to a number of other former employees who claim that the company hushed up reports of sexual harassment, failed to create a safe working environment and even directed staff to flirt with customers who were acting inappropriately.

An Unsafe Workplace

Andria Jordaan worked at Honey Birdette’s Canberra store for two years, between 2013 and 2015. She told Junkee that the company was well aware of the frequent incidents of sexual harassment at the stores.

“Nothing was hidden in any of our stores as management would call up to three times a day,” Jordaan said. “Each time an incident occurred we would tell our area managers and were told not to let it affect our sales, turn the music up and keep up the ‘Honey vibe’.”

“Occasionally multiple stores would get phone calls from the same person asking the same questions or exhibiting inappropriate behaviour. Often the store manager would send out an email to all stores warning them, and this was always addressed to upper management, and each time we were viciously scolded and told not to discuss harassment, especially in the store.”

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Former Honey Birdette employees protested outside a Melbourne store last week.

According to Jordaan, she and other employees reported “harassment issues, hours of daily unpaid overtime, complaints around ‘uniform’ expectancy, and the amount of money [they] were required to spend [themselves] on grooming and the ‘Honey look’.” She claims management dismissed the concerns, citing the fact that staff were “paid more than the average retail worker by a company who really cares about [them]”.

Another former employee, who told Junkee she would only speak anonymously because she feared retribution from the company said, “If the company was run by a man they would be facing lawsuit after lawsuit.”

“Imagine a company run by a man telling his exclusively female staff they had to wear high heels, red lipstick, skirts and lingerie,” they said.

The Little Black Book

Last week we reported on Honey Birdette’s official staff handbook, referred to internally as the “Little Black Book”. The handbook described how female staff members should dress and act, and encouraged them to use phrases like “spank me if I’m wrong”.

Junkee has obtained a seperate internal document called “Store Management Procedures” that describes how staff should react around “rowdy customers”. According to the document, staff should respond to “inappropriate customers” with “humour”.

“If someone is being inappropriate with the whips say, ‘no spanking in store you naughty thing’ or, if someone asks you a rude question regarding toys reply ‘a lady never tells’,” the procedures manual says.

Jordaan told Junkee that “We were encouraged to flirt when customers were inappropriate. Sales were always first priority and we were to do whatever it took to get them.”

Employees are directed to be discrete when dealing with inappropriate customer behaviour in order to avoid “embarrassment”. Staff are also encouraged to wear lingerie that is “designed to be shown” as part of their work attire.

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An excerpt from Honey Birdette’s procedures manual.

The procedures manual does not include any kind of complaints process, which is something former staff have raised as a significant concern. However, the manual makes it clear that inappropriate behaviour is something staff members are likely to experience.

One section explains how employees should respond “if you receive a dodgy phone call”. “It has happened that people (as to date — men) call the store thinking they might get a $5.50/min service for free. The simple instruction to staff who might be on the receiving end of these calls is to ‘tell them you’re very busy and need to go'”.

Jordaan confirmed to Junkee that “there was absolutely no helpful advice or support system for harassment issues.”

“We were discouraged from talking about it in general. The term ‘boys will be boys’ was the response to any form of harassment,” she said.

“After a while we were scolded when we complained for either being negative, not focusing on sales or for using the computer when an incident was reported via email.”

Responses To Date

Honey Birdette staff use a private social network called “The Hive”. In the latest version the staff newsletter called “Honey Pot”, which is posted to The Hive, reference is made to the recent controversies.

“You may all be aware of the negativity going around on social [media] and I am here to say let’s just ignore and move on,” the newsletter says. “Only we know what a crack team we all make. With the bad comes the good, Belle [the lingerie line] is officially our best-seller so far!”

Former Honey Birdette employees continue to speak out about the company’s workplace policies.

A report in Fairfax alleged that potential employees were vetted for their looks during the recruitment process. Former staff told Fairfax that they were refused toilet and meal breaks, and one employee said she was forced to urinate in a rubbish bin in the store.

A petition calling on the company to reform its workplace policies has been signed by more than 6,000 people, but so far the company is keeping its response to the public outcry very brief.

Junkee sent Honey Birdette a detailed list of the allegations in this article and asked for the company’s response. A spokesperson for the company provided the following statement:

“We are all about empowering women and supporting our wonderful staff. We are disappointed about the mistruths that have been reported recently… at this stage Honey Birdette does not wish to comment further.”