Employee Branding is a concept that has been around for a few years now. For those who have never heard of it, Employee Branding is not about employers stamping logos on their workers with a hot iron, although I often think some of them would given half the chance, it’s about making sure that employees behave and communicate in a way that reinforces the company’s brand.
But Amanda Bucklow asks whether there is a conflict between branding and employment law, especially the laws on diversity. She refers to the case of Riam Dean, who won an employment tribunal claim against Abercrombie and Fitch last week. The court found that Miss Dean, who has a prosthetic arm, had been unlawfully harassed on the grounds of her disability. She was told to work in the stockroom, away from public view until the winter uniform arrived, because the summer one revealed her arm. Wearing something long-sleeved over the uniform would have contravened the company’s look policy, which, according to press reports, runs to forty-five pages.
In short, Abercrombie and Fitch wants fit, good-looking and fashionable people to work for it because these are the brand values it is trying to communicate. Someone in the London store clearly thought that having a women with a prosthetic arm in the shop serving customers was a threat to the company’s brand image.
Fashion retailers often have explicit ‘look policies’ but many organisations have similar de facto rules, even though their managers might not always realise it. Subconsciously, they go for a certain type of person who they think reflects the image the company is trying to promote. Last year, a friend described the graduate induction day at her City firm:
There was a good sprinkling of black, Indian and Chinese faces but everyone was thin, good looking and spoke either with a Home Counties accent or a refined Scottish or regional one. There were no fat people, no strong accents, no-one with spots, no-one who looked a bit funny and no chavs. They might all have been different colours but they were all beautiful, shiny and well-dressed. It reminded me of a Coca Cola advert.
Of course, diversity legislation covering gender and ethnicity does not present a problem for employee branding. In fact, having an ethnically diverse workforce is a plus for most organisations. Adverts for fashion retailers may be full of handsome people from around the world but so are the brochures of management consultancies and accountancy firms.
The potential conflict between branding and diversity comes from legislation on age, disability and religion because these are things that can make people look wrong.
I am, and always have been, a miserable sod with a near-pathological hatred of the general public. Think Jack Dee but without the wit. I am, therefore, unlikely ever to be employed in retail. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that I am one of those endlessly patient, helpful, happy and smiling people who just makes customers want to buy stuff. I still wouldn’t get a job with Abercrombie and Fitch, or any similar retailer, because I’m too old and don’t fit the company’s brand image. Fashionable retailers don’t want middle-aged people; they want employees that look like their customers, only prettier, who will attract people to the store and encourage them to buy.
If someone’s age can be incompatible with a brand image, so can someone’s religion. Two years ago, the manager of a hairdressing salon refused to employ a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf. Her rationale was that her salon specialised in funky, leading edge hairstyles, therefore she expected all her stylists to look the part. Like staff at the fashion retailers, the hair stylists were there not only to do the work but to present an image to which the customers would aspire. Smart, trendy people in a fashion store, stylists with whacky hair in a hairdressing salon. A woman with a headscarf, claimed the salon’s manager, just wouldn’t fit with the brand.
The employment tribunal was having none of it though and found the salon guilty of religious discrimination.
The need for employees to be ‘brand- congruent’ is clearly not regarded by courts as acceptable defence against a breach of diversity legislation. To maintain your brand, you might want to discriminate against people for looking wrong but if that wrongness is due to their age, religion or disability, the law is going to have you for it.
It is unlikely that there will be many cases like this. Organisations with a strong brand image tend to discourage the ‘wrong’ sort of people people from applying for jobs in the first place. However, it only takes one such case to punch a hole in that carefully constructed image. Some marketing experts are already suggesting that Abercrombie and Fitch, which was already in trouble, has sustained considerable damage to its brand. Banishing Riam Dean to the stockroom may end up costing the company a lot more than the £9,000 it paid out in compensation.