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Doing what the boss says

2 September 2014

Readers will no doubt have heard about Monet-Mei Clarke's resignation from a KiwiYo franchise in Whangarei.

KiwiYo is a frozen yoghurt company operated by franchisees throughout New Zealand and beyond.

Clarke had only been in her job at KiwiYo for four weeks when she was pulled up by the franchise owner Margaret Lang for saying ‘Kia Ora' when greeting customers. As a result she resigned.

Te reo is Clarke's first language in the family home and she told the media that it was a shock to be told that she couldn't use the language that she used all the time.

Lang said that staff accepted company requirements when they were hired and this included wearing a uniform and using KiwiYo's standardised greeting. She said the issue arose because Clarke simply said ‘Kia Ora' to a new customer and did not follow it up with the greeting she had been trained to use. The standard greeting is based around variations of "Welcome to KiwiYo, have you been here before?"

Lang has also said that it was acceptable to rule out the use of ‘Kia Ora' because "this is an English speaking country".

Unfortunately for Lang, it seems that the senior management of KiwiYo is not marching to the same tune. Norman Markgraaf, KiwiYo's chief executive has publicly said that he has no problem with the use of ‘Kia Ora' so long as it was followed by a friendly greeting as laid out in company policy. He has also released a statement saying he would personally offer Clarke his apologies and wanted to explore ways to rectify the situation.

Ironically KiwiYo is about to open a franchise in Beijing where staff will be required to greet customers with ‘Kia Ora' before extending a friendly greeting in Mandarin.

Employers are entitled to set terms of employment including dress and greeting requirements. They are also entitled to require employees to obey lawful and reasonable instructions.

For many food chains, branding is critical. McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and others come to mind. Their branding standardises how staff dress and how they greet customers in many cases. Friction however occurs when workers don't comply. Take the case of Linda Hunt.

Hunt was a long-serving postie at New Zealand Post.

Posties are required to wear a standardised uniform. From time to time, New Zealand Post would update this uniform and would require staff to wear the updated uniform.

In February 2012, Hunt was told by a member of the management team not to wear items from an old New Zealand Post uniform. Shortly afterwards, a briefing was given to all posties, including Hunt, which told them that they needed to wear the correct uniform and that any old uniform pieces would need to be returned as soon as possible.

One of the pieces of the new uniform was a fleece. Hunt had however lent her new fleece to a colleague who had broken his zip. Hunt informed her team leader about this and that she had been wearing her old fleece as a consequence.

Hunt subsequently attempted to retrieve her fleece, however she was told by the colleague that because he had been wearing it for several months, he would buy her a new one.

Some five weeks later, Hunt was seen leaving her branch to start her delivery round wearing the wrong fleece. The team Leader went out to find Hunt and asked her to remove the fleece which Hunt did. Hunt was then offered alternative uniform options but she declined and then rode off before the conversation was finished.

Not a smart move!

An investigation led to Hunt being given a written warning for wearing the incorrect uniform.

Hunt subsequently went to the Employment Relations Authority to raise concerns about a number of matters including the warning for wearing incorrect uniform.

The authority examined the warning and the process leading up to it. It determined that the warning was justified.

There are limits to what a worker can be expected to do in the name of the company. However, the sort of branding that we see every day in banks, food chains and the like means that conformity with the company brand is likely to be required and enforceable. That may take the form of a standard of dress, or offering side dishes when a customer orders a cheeseburger.

There are two sides to the KiwiYo story but it doesn't appear to have ended well. The key lesson for employers is to communicate policies and expectations when employment is offered.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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