Former Honey Birdette Employees Unleash Over Workplace Sexual Harassment Concerns
“The moral of the story was that if a man is sexually harassing you, you can still turn it into a sale for the company.”
Almost six years after a groundbreaking campaign that promised hope and change, Honey Birdette sales assistants say the lingerie brand still has a culture that enables sexual harassment in the workplace.
A petition started by a former employee last month, which has since garnered over 6000 signatures, claimed that management fails to prevent unwanted attention and behaviour from customers, and turns a blind eye to complaints when raised.
Claudia, the face of latest recent movement, said she was excited to join a brand that appeared to promote and embrace feminism, pausing her degree to manage one of its stores. But things soon turned sour for Claudia, who alleges she experienced and witnessed bullying, verbal and physical harassment, as well as sexist standards while working at Honey Birdette on-and-off for four years.
Her story has opened a can of worms about profit versus protection, and questioned how a company can claim to support female empowerment when they put their staff in dangerous positions and don’t have enough measures in place to make all employees feel safe at work.
A Pipe Dream
“Being a Honey is more than just a ‘job’ it’s a lifestyle,” an old Honey Birdette training manual read.
It’s an alluring sentiment that lives on to this day, with prospective employees — often in their late teens or early 20s — drawn by the enticing promise of working at a place that helps customers with vulvas achieve orgasm for the first time, makes people feel confident and sexy in their own skin, and pairs people with tools to elevate their sex life from the comfort of their local shopping centre.
“It crosses the line of a retail store — you’re selling products, not a fantasy…”
For the employees who spoke to Junkee, it all rings true, disclosing that they were often fond of their immediate team, loved the sex positive environment, and still remember heartwarming interactions with clients that’ll stick with them for years to come.
However, a key tenet to successful retail — from tech to coffee pods — is to go beyond listing features and quantitative jargon and, instead, sell a fantasy. Where would you use this product? How will it make you feel when you open the box at home? Would you like to hear about how it changed my world too?
But when it comes to pleasure, painting a picture also carries risk. Claudia told Junkee that when you have to conjure custom scenarios for how a client can enjoy a product on themselves, it gets incredibly personal.
“It crosses the line of a retail store — you’re selling products, not a fantasy,” she said. “It’s not sex work. And while there’s nothing wrong with sex work, that’s not what retail workers are doing at Honey Birdette.”
Behind Closed Curtains
As a store that sells sex toys and lingerie, Honey Birdette can often attract threatening types looking to stir trouble through its doors.
A 2019 survey by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association found that more than a third of incidents of workplace sexual harassment in the five years prior were perpetrated by a customer.
Former employees said it was all too common for men to make lewd comments or sexual advances, indecently expose themselves, or even stalk sales staff across its 45 boutiques nationwide — ordeals made worse when employees face up to eight hour shifts on their own.
“When harassment goes down in stores there’s no preventable measures,” said Claudia of her time there between 2017 and 2021. “You’re not allowed to leave the store if there’s a client and they’re blocking the exit.”
“You can’t lock yourself away in the backroom, because it doesn’t lock — some stores don’t even have backrooms — and the change rooms are curtain closing. So, you pretty much are forced to face whatever is in front of you.”
Claudia said that instead of encouraging employees to remove themselves from dangerous situations, they were first encouraged to try and de-escalate, potentially opening themselves up for something worse to happen.
“It’s only when a customer is getting physical that they give permission to remove yourself from the store or go and stand outside,” she said. “I know of women, even to this day, who have reported things, and said to me that the incident report hadn’t even been read. Honey Birdette are actively looking the wrong way.”
In a case where a colleague asked management for security guards in their store after a bad experience with a customer, she recalled her friend was promptly rebuffed. “Her answer was no, we can’t have security in your store because then all of the stores would have to have it — like, god forbid we protect women in the workplace.”
Business As Usual
The first ‘Not Your Honey’ campaign started in late 2016 with former employees burning their bras to protest sexist dress codes and sales tactics enforced on them, which led to unwanted behaviour from customers.
Harriet, a Honey employed during 2014 and 2015, helped front a follow-up protest on Valentine’s Day a few months later, with supporters presenting a “break up” letter to co-founder and current Managing Director Eloise Monaghan.
During her time at Honey Birdette, which she joined aged 19, Harriet said a senior manager gave her store a pep talk that summed up how employees could turn negative interactions into a sale.
“She was talking about how she had a guy who came in and was flirting with her, and she was showing him the sex toy wall, and he was like ‘I’ll pay you $3000 for you to sit on my face right now’, and she was like, ‘Oh, no thank you, but what you could do is XYZ…'”
“She shared this elaborate spiel about how she had a horny man, but she turned it into a $1000 sale. The moral of the story was that if a man is sexually harassing you, you can still turn it into a sale for the company,” she said.
Harriet also told Junkee she continues to get the occasional message from strangers sharing their experiences at Honey Birdette and, in the years since, said the issues they were fighting then are still relevant as ever.
Rachael, whose name has been changed, said that while she didn’t share the experiences outlined in the petition when she worked at Honey Birdette until early 2020, she could see where instances might have happened in other stores.
“I’m not going to say I never had a tricky client, or didn’t have to start talking to security or management or anything like that,” said Rachael. But she told Junkee that when she felt less on the safe side, there was a system in place, relevant numbers on the back of the store’s door, and a compassionate HR figure who checked in with her afterwards.
She said there was a shift in management just before she started working there and that by all accounts, everyone around her felt the work culture shift away from the controversies of the years prior. “It seemed that the girls were overworked and were meant to tolerate certain behaviour from clients and from team members – accept things that probably weren’t okay and wouldn’t be tolerated now.”
“Sex makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable still despite how far we’ve come in the industry…”
“It created a culture of fear, silencing, and disgustingness that creates a toxic workplace. It tainted what the core of the company was trying to do.”
Rachael sees the issues at heart as being institutional and societal, and hopes a boycott isn’t the next step forward. “I don’t know if it’s Honey Birdette [people] are angry at. I think it’s the abusers and the context that allows them to thrive,” she said. “It’s hard to find that middle ground when we live in a patriarchal, capitalistic society.”
“The petition is coming from a good place, but it just creates another opportunity to push taboo into the background, because some people are offended by the company and their ethos … and sex makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable still despite how far we’ve come in the industry.”
“It doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make it just Honey Birdette,” said Rachael.
Claudia argues that Honey Birdette’s role is in this is more concrete, cemented in the way employees are instructed to sell products, how they’re asked to word things, and the way they’re asked to present themselves — regardless of the industry they’re in.
“For example, at a Melbourne store, a woman revealed to me she had a gentleman come in and made sure she was alone, asking if there was anyone coming to work with her that day, and if he could try on some underwear,” she said.
“And then she realised he was completely disingenuous because he was getting into the change room and started revealing himself to her. At that point, she didn’t feel comfortable enough to say that was inappropriate or ask him to get out, so she continued to serve this person.”
“She asked, ‘what’s in my Honey Birdette tool kit?’ Sell. To a person who had absolutely no intention of buying.”
“There are obviously some individuals out there who are trash and act inappropriately, and obviously we can only hold them responsible for that, but what are Honey Birdette doing to put measures in place?” she asked. “Their response is to sell something, or just ignore it and get over it.”
A former manager described her key performance indicators at Honey Birdette as “ridiculous” to news.com.au in February, saying that her targets could be as high as $17,000, and how she was instructed to tell new staff that they would be fired if they didn’t meet their KPIs four weeks in a row.
“The whole culture while I worked there was all about selling, selling, selling,” reflected Harriet. “If you didn’t sell you could lose your job, and that just meant we were constantly stressed all the time, and it made such a negative work environment.”
Duty Of Care
In June last year, Honey Birdette was sold to the company who owns Playboy, with plans for widespread international presence and influence. In the months since, the multi-million dollar empire now sits at a crossroad where it could easily branch out without addressing its root rot first.
Rachael has a positive view of Honey Birdette’s future. She said she really felt the company was stepping up its game after a mass exodus since 2016, but hopes they do still improve for the better, particularly with body positivity and intersectional inclusivity concerns.
“Honey Birdette needs to respond to what’s been put to them…”
“I think it’s good to call out stuff when it’s happening, but also have the ability to call someone back in,” she said. “They are, in my opinion, actively working on weeding this stuff out. I truly believe that.”
Harriet and Claudia have a less rosy outlook. At the time, Harriet believes HQ ignored and brushed off past protesters as being jaded and bitter, their concerns swept under the rug with no acknowledgement whatsoever.
Claudia said she’d like to see the stories of victim-survivors validated by Honey Birdette this time around and, in an ideal world, also issue an apology. “Honey Birdette needs to respond to what’s been put to them, because at the moment they’re not even acknowledging the petition, and the hundreds of people who have emailed the directors,” she said.
Junkee reached out to Honey Birdette for comment.
Photo Credit: Victorian Trades Hall Council/Supplied