Toronto dining chain Bier Markt was vying for attention when it told waitresses to ditch the black golf shirt and black pants, leggings or a skirt uniform in exchange for skimpy blue dresses. Unfortunately, it got a little more attention than it had hoped for.
The story blew up across the media, with two Bier Markt employees, Becky Lockert and Danielle Barbeau, quitting their jobs and filing complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Another employee, Tierney Angus, said more than 40 women from four different locations complained to the human resources department at Cara Foods, the company that owns Bier Markt.
“One of the girls I work with mentioned you could see her underwear and the suggestion by my general manager was that she wear a thong if she didn’t want her underwear to show, which is totally inappropriate. It’s an extra requirement of the female staff that the men don’t have to comply with. No one is asking them to wear a thong,” she told CBC.
Cara told the CBC the new uniforms were meant to reflect the brands “stylish image” and staff were involved in the selection but shortly after the news ran the company changed it’s policy deciding women were free to wear the same uniform as men.
But despite the retraction Bier Markt is part of an emerging trend in the casual dining sphere, one echoed by chains like Moxie’s and Joey’s which utilizes sex appeal and customer interaction to draw in clientele.
It’s a byproduct of a concentrated market where differentiators are hard to come by, explains Dr. Gabor Forgacs, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
“The most difficult part, beyond the menu design and culinary arts, is to create an ambience and atmosphere with just music and lighting,” he says. In turn, some of these chains turn to who they hire to represent the brand and perhaps more importantly, how they dress.
“The hiring process is tricky because you have to make your expectations known but you can’t cross the line by telling the employee they must have their tattoo removed or they can’t have a nose piercing,” he says. “When it comes to this balance, that’s where the uniform enters the picture – you can require the employees to wear a certain uniform.”
But there are rules says Howard Levitt, labour and employment lawyer at Levitt and Grosman LLP.
“Requiring the women to dress in a more sexualized way – that would constitute discrimination,” he says.
He points to the 2004 case of Andrea Mottu worked for Barfly Nightclub in Victoria and was required for Hawaiian night to wear a bikini top and work her shift or be replaced.
“The male servers did not have to wear such revealing clothing,” he recalls. “She left her employ and filed a human rights complaint in B.C. and was awarded $6,000.”
He points to another case, also in B.C., where Karolina Bil alleged gender-based discrimination from her employer the Shark Club, saying it required women to show cleavage and wear mini skirts which generated sexual comments from patrons.
“The long and short of it is that requiring sexualized attire of females will likely be tenable grounds for a complaint of sex discrimination,” he says.
But there are exceptions.
“If it is a club or bar where the sexualized attire is the very basis of the bar itself, such as Hooters, then that is legitimate as it is the exception to human rights legislation of a “bona fide occupational requirement”,” he says. “The problem with this new case is that is not the nature of the bar and these employees are already employed and the bar is trying to change the terms of their employment after they are already working –legally, an employer cannot do that if it is a major change like going to sexualized outfits.”
For the most part, the idea of introducing an edgy, sexualized uniform is meant to raise a couple eyebrows says Emily Callaghan, concept development manager and head of communications at Synergy Restaurant Consultants.
“This whole approach we call ‘breastaurants’,” she says pointing to less subtle chains like Hooters and the Tilted Kilt. “The uniform is an extension of delivering on that promise to the guest.”
Callaghan isn’t confident the trend of sexy waitress outfits will really stick around.
“In 20 years will we be seeing this? I don’t know,” she says. “With the society we live in I wouldn’t be surprised if things like this start going away.”
She points out there’s another trend more likely to catch, one where front of house staff – waiters and waitresses – are given general style guidelines that make sense with the brand.
But regardless of the approach taken, usually implementing a new uniform requires consultation, especially one like Bier Markt tried to introduce.
“Logistically I’m sure there were some conversations with the staff about the new approach but hopefully high level, there was some really thought out research and change,” she says. “A change like that would affect their menu so I would think their offerings (would have to be) different to accommodate the new type of guest.”
While the outpouring was enough to get Bier Markt to shift its policies, Ann Frost, an organizational behaviour professor at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, says the incident highlights a slew of overarching systemic issues in the restaurant sector.
“They (seem to) know nothing about their rights – the abuses they take in terms of not being paid, not being paid on time, having hours docked, going into work and being sent home without hours that day,” she says. “If they understood their Employment Standards Act then the employers would not get away with this.”
She applauds the women from Bier Markt but says chances are, they’re a rarity.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t prepared to lose their job because it’s the only one they have,” says Frost. “Sometimes it’s the trade-off you make – yeah I have to wear this skimpy outfit but I’m going to make more money doing it – it’s the golden handcuffs, they’ve got you.”
Forgacs agrees pointing out that while uniforms are an important part of the ambiance, they’re not the be-all and end-all.
“When the manager sees the sales numbers aren’t what they want so they want to do something to tweak the value proposition in their own way they can maybe look at portion size, pricing, menu selection, but I’m not too sure this is the right approach to look at the uniforms,” he says. “To sexualize the female servers, that’s easy and a lazy decision – instead of going after the low hanging fruit, competitive brands should really work harder beyond the surface.”