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Discrimination does not help a brand’s image

Mark Watson, Partner at law firm Fox Williams LLP.

Job advertisements can be fertile ground for potential discrimination claims, particularly in fashion, where businesses may want to hire people as visual ambassadors of their style.

In the UK there is a legal defence that permits employers to advertise for certain things - youthfulness, maturity, and so on - as long as they can be objectively justified with hard evidence. But that can be difficult.

Not everyone can expect to get away with what Prada’s Japanese operation has done. Reportedly it instructed an employee to rid the business of staff who were “old, fat, ugly, disgusting, with bad teeth, bad bodies or did not have the Prada look”. The employee sued, claiming it was discriminatory behaviour, but lost. A Tokyo District Court judge ruled in favour of Prada, saying that the alleged discrimination was “acceptable for a luxury fashion label”.

In the UK this need to protect a brand’s image would struggle as a defence. However, while culling old employees would provide grounds for a legal claim, as yet removing the “fat, ugly and disgusting” would not.

Tara Jarmon’s store in Hampstead, London reportedly had a falling out with a new sales assistant because she was a size 12 and did not look right in one of the store’s dresses - embarrassing for all concerned, but not actionable.

And it works the other way as well. Online retailer Simply Be is running a plus-size model competition. No discrimination there… unless a size zero model can be said to have a disability.

Even instances where a case has been brought can have limited financial repercussions, as in the case of shop worker Riam Dean, who sued Abercrombie & Fitch over disability discrimination. She was awarded £8,000 for unlawful harassment, £136 basic compensation and £1,077 for loss of earnings - a tiny sum for a company its size, but the case did lead to adverse press coverage.

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