Beyond the hot pants ban: how staffing agencies can strike a balance

Beyond the hot pants ban: how staffing agencies can strike a balance

Formula One's decision to dispense with the 'Grid girls' means staffing agencies must respond by developing new approaches and strategies, writes HeyHuman's managing partner.

"It's PC gone mad!" they screamed from the rooftops, clutching their VHS copies of Only Fools & Horses while fondly remembering a time when women stayed in the kitchen.

That’s a tad hyperbolic, but you can see where my figurative bigot is coming from. No more Presidents Club. No more walk-on girls. No more grid girls. Even ICE’s Totally Gaming event faced a boycott due to its swimsuit-clad hostesses and pole dancers. Pole dancers who signed non-disclosure agreements, may I add.

It’s been a century since women were given a slither of the vote, and now sports brands, hospitality brands and more find themselves submerged in an industry-wide sea change. Even UK Construction Week, a leading event in construction, just issued exhibitor guidelines covering the design of stands and appropriate clothing. "Don’t use showgirls to sell roof tiles." Yup.

While the "It’s PC gone mad!" shtick will never totally disappear, the recent end to darts’ famous walk-on girls has been met by backlash from the women themselves. They feel the decision has been taken away from them – darts’ first ever walk-on girl likened the move to "destroying women’s careers".

The impact on the staffing industry

A similar view can be taken when looking at F1’s grid girls. Is it really fair that this is happening, that someone’s livelihood is erased because other people don’t approve of what they’re doing? It’s a massive issue impacting the staffing industry, and agencies must respond by developing new approaches and strategies.

Staffing agencies need to strike a balance, and fast. Most do a sterling job of recruiting the right ambassadors for events, but unfortunately a select few mishaps give the industry a bad rap. Take The Presidents Club. That shouldn’t have happened. The Club shouldn’t have asked for those ambassadors to be there in that capacity and the agency shouldn’t have sent them. On top of that, ambassadors need to be fully briefed, comfortable with the assignment and feel safe. Agencies need to provide this on every assignment, no exceptions.

The thing is, though: brands sometimes do ask agencies to give them sex appeal. They often get what they want, and when alcohol’s involved at an event, boundaries can be overstepped. We have to kill this problem at its source. The brands in question have to realise that the world has moved on and agencies need to tell them this. That way, the nature of the business changes to cater to today’s audience and demand for transparency, diversity, equality and inclusion.

This is a clarion call for agencies. It’s a chance to appease both ambassadors who don’t mind the "sex sells, yeah baby, yeah!" mantra while also moving forward. To do this, they need to cast a wider net when recruiting. Don’t just pick stereotypical ambassadors from the same demographic. An uptake in diversity, in all its senses, can only be a good thing – sharing the jobs around won’t impact those who’ve traditionally taken most of the roles in the industry, instead it will show real progression.

Striking a balance

In turn, this improves customers’ perceptions of the brand. Ambassadors aren’t there as "eye candy". They’re a group of men and women who’re there to interact on behalf of a brand reflecting the diverse audience it wants to talk to.

It’s about striking a balance. Tuning into the mood and current issues the industry faces while still staying true to the brand. Not everyone will agree with the change. You can never please everyone, nor appease those who always, without fail, want the exact opposite of whatever it is you’re offering.

When you look at F1, they could have easily turned a blind eye regarding grid-girls, slowly becoming the automotive version of Apu from The Simpsons: a product very much of its time, but not really acceptable in modern day society. People would still watch. Instead, F1’s move shows progressive, modern-day values. There’s still a place for women in skimpy outfits, but maybe it’s not on the racetrack.

The solution isn’t to cover everyone’s skin and gasp every time a thigh is revealed – the Scruff Pit Crew from RuPaul’s Drag Race would surely be devastated. It’s about agencies empowering their staff, taking a stand and clearly spelling out what’s ok and what isn’t to brands. It’s about brands realising that it’s 2018, and if both their customers and their agencies are telling them to alter their approach, then maybe more of them will start listening.

Liz Richardson is managing partner at HeyHuman

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