Sex sells, making for awkward HR (Editor's Notes)

HR has to balance revenue, business goals with preventing harassment, protecting employees
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/16/2015

Sex sells. That’s something the advertising industry has known for decades — a Pearl Tobacco brand advertisement from 1871 is often cited as the first time sex was used to sell a product. That packaging featured a naked maiden on its cover.

From that point on, it’s been a proven tactic embraced by every industry, most notably tobacco and automotive, to drive sales and gain market share. 

Restaurants started embracing the notion about three decades ago, when Hooters burst onto the scene. It sparked a movement of “breastaurants” — where scantily clad wait staff (usually women) serve up booze and food to customers (often men.)

We’ll stop short of calling it the most elevated status humans have evolved to, but few would argue it’s a bad business model. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out men will probably stick around longer, thereby drinking and spending (and tipping) more, if they’re enjoying the “scenery” provided by employees.

And judging by the proliferation and success of these restaurants — including Milestones, Tilted Kilt and Earl’s, to name a handful — the trend won’t be abating anytime soon.

It’s a head-scratching conundrum for HR professionals in an era where common sense — not to mention legislation — dictates employees should not be subjected to sexual harassment. The issue came to a head recently in Toronto at a Bier Market location. The chain has jumped on the breastaurant bandwagon, recently introducing new uniforms for staff. It was the subject of a CBC Go Public story.

The chain used to have a simple gender neutral uniform — black pants and a golf shirt. But that was tossed out in favour of skimpier outfits — at least for the women. Men “could wear jeans, a button-down shirt and Converse runners,” according to the CBC. 

Women, on the other hand, were provided with short, sleeveless dresses. The only footwear options were boots or high heels, and jackets, sweaters and thick tights were banned.

Tierney Angus, a Bier Market server, said a general manager told a colleague to wear a thong after she pointed out her underwear was showing with the new outfits.

“I was upset that I had to squeeze my body into something that small,” Angus told the CBC. “The material is almost bathing suit-like. It is very tight, very skimpy. I went up a size and my boyfriend commented he could see my tailbone through it.” 

Cara, the corporate entity that owns the Bier Market — along with other restaurant chains Milestones, Swiss Chalet and Montana’s — reversed its policy after being contacted by the CBC. 

Angus said about 40 employees contacted HR to complain about the changes. In a statement, Cara said it listened closely to staff feedback as the new uniform was rolled out.

“Based on their input, we have made additional adjustments to the uniform specifications including adding options for additional footwear choices, hosiery, cardigans women can wear when they want, and an option for a longer dress,” it said. 

“We have now made the male uniform option a unisex option available to female staff as well. Female staff who prefer to wear the jeans, shirt and running shoe option may return the dress for a full refund.”

Human rights legislation clear

What’s interesting is some human rights legislation specifically prohibits this kind of behaviour by employers. Ontario’s Human Rights Code, for example, has text that explicitly addresses this issue. 

While employers can certainly have different uniforms for men and women, it states “an employer should be prepared to prove that any sex-linked differences in the dress code are bona fide occupational requirements. Do not subject female employees to more difficult requirements than male employees, and do not expect them to dress provocatively to attract clients. 

“It is discrimination based on sex to require female employees to wear high heels, short skirts and tight tops.”

There’s not much room for interpretation between those plain-language lines.

And yet it hasn’t stopped the proliferation of restaurants like this, nor affected the dress code at countless other establishments. It all comes back to the same point — sex sells. Always has, always will.

And this isn’t just an issue at breastaurants — I’ve heard otherwise respectable employers say they will only hire women — and only attractive women at that — for customer-facing positions, because clients love it and it increases sales and engagement. 

For HR professionals, the end result is an awkward dance between driving revenue and ensuring staff aren’t subject to repugnant behaviour that could lead to significant fines or lawsuits. 

And there’s nothing sexy about that.

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