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When looks don't matter

Luxury brand Prada found itself in hot water last year when a former employee in Japan accused the company of trying to fire "old, fat and ugly" store employees. The outcome of the case, it should be stressed, saw the competent court dismissing all accusations and ruling that the termination of employment - for reasons other than those alleged - was quite legitimate.

Such instances, though, must leave employers in Hong Kong, especially those retailing fashion, beauty and cosmetics products shaking their heads in wonder. Any mention of staff "appearance" is an area they have learned to navigate with particular care, aware that good looks don't count as a "genuine occupational qualification".

"There is no legislation in Hong Kong covering discrimination on the grounds of personal appearance, but employers are advised to be alert to biases that may be unlawful under the anti-discrimination ordinances," says Mariana Law, spokeswoman for the Equal Opportunities Commission. "A person's working ability is not affected by his or her appearance."

This means that even a recruitment advertisement specifying that candidates should have "excellent health" or "good facial features" is unlawful. Decisions affecting hiring, assessments and promotions should focus on relevant skills, knowledge and experience.

"To avoid misunderstanding or uncertainties, it is recommended [not to use] words which describe particular physical attributes," Law says.

Dr Lisa Wan, assistant professor of marketing at Lingnan University, confirms this point. She notes, though, that companies selling luxury brands or beauty products and services may require salespeople to have a certain physical attractiveness when on duty. However, this could be "manipulated" by clothing, cosmetics and hairstyle.

"[Companies should know] personality contributes to the overall attractiveness of an employee," Wan says. "Consumers like to interact with a friendly, outgoing and enthusiastic salesperson, and are more likely to purchase the brands offered by them."

Bobo Chu, education manager for Estee Lauder in Hong Kong, similarly stressed the importance of personality over appearance in representing an upmarket brand and building relationships with customers.

"We always look for friendly people with pleasant personalities as our beauty advisers," Chu says. "They don't need to be beautiful, but should have the spirit and mentality to want to look good."

To succeed in a sales-related role, the key is to be service-oriented, well informed about specific products, and interested in helping customers. This is a matter of intensive training and caring about which products or treatment would let consumers look their best.

"The most vital thing is to have confidence and address the skincare and make-up needs of the customer," Chu says. "For our brand, it is also important to have a good combination of younger and more experienced advisers. Some customers prefer to listen to older advisers who have won their trust."


In Hong Kong, companies such as Estee Lauder say they will not hire or fire based on impressions of physical looks. But they will provide definite guidelines on grooming and personal presentation. For women, this will include precise instructions on how to wear the uniform and how to choose and apply the most suitable make-up. Anyone not following the guidelines might get lower scores on an appraisal.