Does appearance still matter in the travel industry?

With the welcome announcement this week that Virgin Atlantic no longer requires female cabin crew to wear make-up to work, we had a chat among the Progressive Travel Team about restrictions on appearance that we’ve encountered in our careers.

Fiona remembered that at a travel-agency job back in the late 80’s to mid 90’s, all female staff had to wear pale pink lipstick, American tan coloured tights and black court leather shoes. She says, ‘Even in summer we had to wear the tights, it was awful.’ But she points out that she hasn’t experienced any other appearance restrictions during her career, saying, ‘Maybe that shows how antiquated the policy is for Virgin and it was time they got rid of it.’

Good point, but as some of the press have pointed out, restrictions on appearance remain across the aviation industry. British Airways still requires women to wear lipstick and blusher as a minimum, according to a Guardian article. Surely it’s time to bring this outdated practise up to date?

Considering the fact that the sex discrimination act came into force in 1975, a lot of practises are taking a long time to disappear. Virgin has also only just decided to allow women to wear trousers. Up until now, trousers for women had to be specially requested from the airline, but now they will be available as an option for all female staff. One Japanese airline, Skymark Air, designed impractically short mini dresses for its staff in 2009, which are still what they have to wear.

Another Progressive colleague, Lee, remembers her first job in a travel agency, in which the contract stated that female staff had to wear wear light make up and heels that strapped to the ankle so they didn’t slap against your foot when you took a step. They were fine with hair up or down as long as it was neat and normal colours, and no tattoos could be showing. However, Lee says that the restrictions on appearance policy really relaxed in the last few years before she left, and they became more open to people’s individuality.

There are still a few companies which refuse to offer travel consultant roles to anyone with a visible tattoo. In this day and age, with so many young people with tattoos, this policy could restrict the chance of getting top talent.

Our colleague Simon, says, ‘From a male perspective regarding restrictions on appearance, when I worked at a large travel agency in a customer-facing role, a few guys in my store and other stores in the area wanted to take part in Movember, growing a moustache for charity in November. Eventually our request was granted, however the management were very unsure about it despite it being to support a charity. I would have thought the positive PR from supporting a charity would have outweighed any issues over image and appearance. It certainly made me think differently of the company.’

Modern travel companies need to be progressive

It seems as if a lot of companies are wary of being progressive in terms of allowing staff to express themselves individually in terms of appearance. This over-cautious attitude isn’t necessary in a modern travel industry.

Likewise, another Progressive Travel Recruitment colleague worked in a recruitment company where her male boss enforced a policy that female employees had to wear their hair down and wear make-up. He stated that staff must be fully suited and booted every day. The men had to be clean shaven, with no designer stubble or facial hair at all. She says, ‘He was very old fashioned in his perception of ‘correct’ appearance. It was slightly mad as we worked in a tiny office of just four and rarely saw clients.’ Though this was a more corporate non-travel recruitment company.

Interestingly, the corporate world is quickly following suit (excuse the pun). Goldman Sachs announced just this week a new more relaxed dress code for all employees. It said the change in policy is due to ‘the changing nature of workplaces generally in favour of a more casual environment.’ With more than 75% of Goldman employees being Millennials (born after 1981), this change was bound to arrive. It’s also keenly aware that it needs to compete for the best talent with more modern technology firms and 21st-century-style hedge funds. The instructions as to what employees can now wear are fairly vague. The memo states: ‘All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace,’ and employees should dress ‘in a manner that is consistent’ with clients’ expectations. ‘…We trust you will consistently exercise good judgement in this regard.’

The global view

Obviously, attitudes to appearance vary from country to country, too. But they are gradually changing, particularly as bad policies can now be easily called-out online. As the Guardian reports, Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, recently launched the International Air Transport Association diversity and inclusion awards to encourage more women into the industry. This is a company which used to fire pregnant cabin crew, and a chief exec who said not that long ago that only a man could do his job. At least even this sort of company is bringing itself into the 21st century in terms of attitudes towards equality.

For me, I like to wear what I like, but always give consideration to what I’m wearing for each occasion. I like my colleagues to feel the same. People should be comfortable and empowered to make their own call.

Of course, appearance does still matter in the travel industry. We all agree on that. I don’t think anyone expects cabin crew to suddenly start looking scruffy just because it’s no longer compulsory to wear make-up. It’s obviously important to show pride and care in your appearance, particularly if you’re dealing with the public and representing a brand. Managers will still be able to suggest people look presentable and smart. But the days of dictating that people should wear tight skirts, high heels or make up seem to be from the past, and I encourage all airlines – and other companies – to check and update any outdated policies.

What do you think? Connect with James on LinkedIn to join the restrictions on appearance debate. 

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