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Op-Ed | Why the Fashion Industry Needs to Address Workplace Abuse

Time’s up for the fashion industry’s emotional abuse of junior employees, argues Anabel Maldonado.
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  • Anabel Maldonado

“A million girls would kill for this job.” We tend to smirk at lines like this one from the film The Devil Wears Prada, tag each other in the associated memes and wear our sense of identification with the movie’s protagonist — a co-assistant to a ruthless magazine editor — as a badge of honour. Many of us have suffered through one of these roles and that’s just the way it is.

Jobs in fashion are highly desirable. There’s always someone behind you willing to do what you won’t. This gives rise to cutthroat organisational cultures — complete with initiation processes that border on hazing — conceived to weed out the weak. The result: both employers and employees frequently end up normalising what, in reality, can amount to emotional abuse.

I have spoken to several victims who described severe distress and anxiety as a result of their treatment. Some were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they left their job and needed ongoing therapy. Two were hospitalised. Some reported resulting eating disorders as well as drug and alcohol use to cope with the anxiety.

Indeed, victims say the impact of workplace abuse is very real and can result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression or PTSD. But this kind of abuse is often difficult to prove, and many don’t take the issue seriously. These days, when we think of abuse, sexual misconduct by male perpetrators is the first thing that jumps to mind, but we must open our eyes to the reality that, in fashion, the perpetrators of emotional abuse are also women.

The impact of workplace abuse is very real and can result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, depression or PTSD.

Here are the most common markers of legitimate emotional abuse in the workplace:

Threats. Emotional abuse includes threats designed to manipulate and breed fear among employees. This includes the fear of being fired, humiliated or scrutinised. Victims are often threatened with what they fear most: never having a job in the fashion industry again. This is different from a fair, straightforward warning – for example, the mention of possible dismissal for unmet objectives.

Disposability. There is a difference between having an honest "reality-check" conversation with an employee and saying things that dehumanise. Comments that degrade others fall into the category of abuse. Victims recalled a boss who told them "I don't really need you, there's nothing special about you," and being called "intern" instead of their name throughout the internship. What makes this abuse is that it seeks to create a feeling of debilitating worthlessness in order to maintain control. "I don't need you, but you need me."

Insults. These belittling remarks, often made in front of an audience, are often about appearance, competence or personality, which absolutely would not be acceptable in any other business environment. They're also calculated to make victims feel useless. Constructive criticism, even if delivered sharply, is told in aim of helping the individual make better choices in the future. In contrast, it's abuse when there is an element of shaming and clear intent to cause hurt.

Financial injustice. While the industry is full of excess, many fashion businesses famously run on scarce resources and victims of abuse often recall having to use their own money to keep their jobs. Some were paid in unwanted freebies — such as sponsored spa treatments, food and clothing samples — in lieu of previously agreed upon monetary compensation. Some had to advance their own money to pay for shoots, which was returned months after. It should go without saying that foregoing basic needs for prolonged periods of time will lead to deteriorating health. Most junior employees are aware that the early stages of a fashion career are financially challenging, but agreements need to be kept in order to plan accordingly.

At the same time, and especially in the current climate, it’s important to ensure that the term “abuse” is not attached to every emotional encounter that leaves an employee feeling bad. For every complaint, there is another side to the story.

As in every other sector, there are entitled employees who are not willing to accept any kind of constructive negative feedback, and who often lack the grit, competence, and perseverance required for success in the fashion industry. Senior staff that possess the aforementioned qualities, and who have worked hard to get where they are, will have little patience for such employees. These pairings often result in tense situations, and comments can be made out of frustration, without intent to hurt or control. It always goes back to intent – the clearest differentiator.

The digital revolution has created a world of transparency, where nothing can be swept under the rug.

But genuine emotional abuse cannot continue. For starters, we’ll lose talent. Smart people who are treated badly leave. This weakens the industry, leaving us with people who “battled through,” but are likely to perpetuate the cycle. Secondly, abusive employees are bad for business. From Glassdoor to Instagram, people are talking like never before. The digital revolution has created a world of transparency, where nothing can be swept under the rug. Ironically, for those who abuse for the purpose of staying in power and maintaining control — damaging their own reputation will strip them of exactly that. Thirdly, it’s costly. Abuse affects the bottom line through absenteeism, increased turnover, decreased commitment and performance. Anxious and depressed employees do not produce good work. They’re calling in sick, crying in the bathroom, and commiserating on their lunch jaunt. They’re also too scared to take risks. They won’t write that ground-breaking feature or design the standout detail that elevates the collection.

To combat emotional abuse, awareness is half the battle. Senior employees — get honest with yourselves about your intent. Are you projecting your own fears about performance? Does it soothe your ego to publicly shame someone else? We’re human, and these dynamics are common. We hurt when we’re hurt. The sooner you realise it, the sooner you can stop.

The other half of the battle is about improved actions. Those at the top need to realise that using negative reinforcement to keep everyone in check is ineffective. Research shows that positive reinforcement keeps employees loyal, happy and enables them to take more risks. Pay a compliment to your employees now and then — it will make up for sharp words.

John Baldoni, author of nine books on leadership, says abusers may “get employees to comply, but not to commit. People who work for a bully are biding their time, looking for a way out.” Or, in today's world, looking for a way to get their story out. Time’s up for the fashion industry’s emotional abuse.

Anabel Maldonado is a London-based fashion journalist specialising in industry opinion, fashion critique, and fashion psychology.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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