The Laws of Style hosted by Douglas Hand Episode 20 – John Mezzo
“I don’t want to ever take myself or my role too seriously, or else people wall us off and see us as unapproachable.” – John Mezzo
On this episode of the Laws of Style, Douglas is joined by fashion aficionado and HR guru, John Mezzo. They discuss John’s successful HR career at Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors; the ins and outs of creating a productive and happy workplace; the hiring/termination process, hiring with diversity in mind, and much more.
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Sneakers – Michael Kors
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Intro: Welcome to the Laws of Style, featuring conversations on creativity, fashion and the law from the leading edge of our economy and culture, hosted by noted fashion lawyer, Douglas Hand.
Douglas HAND: Hello, and welcome to the podcast, the Laws of Style, downloading to you from the offices of the law firm, HBA, high above Bryant Park in the fashion District of New York City. I’m your host Douglas Hand, fashion lawyer and fashion law professor. For this episode, I’m joined by well-dressed man as well as fashion HR guru, John Meza. John, thanks for being here.
John MEZZO: It’s my pleasure. It’s fun.
HAND: So you’ve spent most of your career in fashion, retail on the Human Resources side, right? Just for our listeners, give us some of those career highlights or when you knew that that was what you wanted to do as a career.
MEZZO: Well, actually, as a younger person, I was convinced I was going to be on stage, I was a theater guy, right. So that was my passion, that was my love. And when I made the decision to move into the traditional work world, I said I need to be in an industry or in a role that was going to leverage those skills around people connectivity. So that’s what kind of got me into the HR side. I wanted to be on the people side of the business.
HAND: What did you study in college? Was it related to HR like psychology?
MEZZO: It was. It was psychology focused, but believe it or not, even at my age, they had an HR management degree. So I got a bachelor’s in human resources management, was a general management major initially and then met this professor who was an HR consultant, started taking his classes, found a passion for it and realized immediately that I was going to get to be in front of people and talking and connecting ,and I thought I needed to be on the people side of the business side.
HAND: What are the elements of that coursework? Are they paradigms for human interest, I mean, how broad does it go? Because this major obviously will take a lot of courses.
MEZZO: Yeah, I mean, it is everything you mentioned, there’s a lot of psychology in HR, we do a lot of coaching and counseling and all those areas of people development and that. But there’s also a more scientific side, it’s a lot of organizational design and studying org structures and ensuring that companies are set up to grow, but that they’re not spending too much. And so it’s that kind of nice balance, but the fashion piece, I can admit to you, I kind of fell in. So, my first role was at Macy’s executive training program, that was at the time we called it the Harvard of Retail. And it was great because it was an immediate lesson to me that you can’t be successful in HR if you’re not immediately tied to and connected to the business. So as a trainee, I’m writing purchase orders for socks and thinking, why am I doing that, I’m an HR guy. And it was a great early lesson that you’re not going to be successful in HR if you don’t understand the business you’re in.
HAND: And give us vintage on this program. So this is 80?
MEZZO: Uh-huh. Late 80s, 89.
HAND: We’re contemporary so you know?
MEZZO: And so yeah, so 80s fashion trends.
HAND: Yeah, for sure.
MEZZO: A lot of shoulder pad going on in my Macy’s training suit, my one suit that I wore for graduation day. But yeah, that was the time frame.
HAND: So from Macy’s where did the career path…?
MEZZO: Was there about four years, and they were in bankruptcy so it was a tough time. And jumped over to Warner Brothers studios stores. They were opening retail stores and trying to compete with the Disney stores at the time. There only two years. I think they realized they were better at making movies than running retail businesses. And immediately discovered Ralph Lauren, I was recruited there into their HR department. And that’s kind of really where it all started. That was my true…
HAND: That was the Princeton.
MEZZO: Yeah, that was the Princeton. Oh my gosh. I mean, maybe that should have been the Harvard because you know, Ralph, and….
HAND: Well, all the Tigers would say no.
MEZZO: Exactly. But immediately immersed myself into the brand. Spent 16 years there. Honestly, never thought I’d leave, was a lifer really, almost was defined by the brand but had an opportunity that was just right for my family and me and was moved over to the Victoria’s Secret brand. And that role was actually not over there stores so it was an interesting experience. It was head of HR for their digital business. And for Victoria’s Secret, at the time, that was almost a $2 billion website. So when you think about companies like Ralph and all these other brands you might know being nowhere near that and they’re all thriving and successful, that particular brand, the online business was so huge it had its own HR department.
So did that for four years; a lot of back and forth to Ohio. That’s where they’re based. So as great as the company is, and yet another connection for me was a founder/owner led business, right, Les Wexner, Ralph Lauren, got a call from the Michael Kors people. And it felt a lot like going back to Ralph, meaning it was New York based fashion retailer founder/owner led, they were small, they were getting bigger. They were US. They were going global. They were private, they went public. So a lot of it felt to me like getting back to that design driven founder/owner walks the halls every day.
HAND: Yeah. So this is pre 2011 when the IPO…?
MEZZO: No, actually, I went to VS in 2011. I went to Michael in 2015. So they had already gone public, but they had a similar story to Ralph.
HAND: And for our listeners who are not familiar with HR, I mean, this is somewhat of a loaded question. You know, the titles have changed. You know, I’ve met so many chief people officer or chief talent officer, or heads of diversity and inclusion.
HAND: What’s the HR function at a fashion brand?
MEZZO: I don’t know that it’s all that different at a fashion brand except to say, you do have to ensure. Your ultimate responsibility is for what we call the employee lifecycle, from pre-employment, meaning we don’t know you exist, to the hiring of you, and all the complex aspects of what it takes to develop you. And where it might be unique in professional retail is there’s just such a tremendously diverse population married with ops and finance people working and standing right next to highly creative, super aesthetic focused designers and creative types. So you have…I’m sure that exists elsewhere but it’s big time in HR.
MEZZO: I’d say it’s definitely, it’s probably two or three. Clearly, what typically happens is the field, as we call it, the in store person, even at the management level, is usually bucketed as a separate entity. They are remote, their governed, as you know, by different laws in different states. And when you speak to them, or manage them or build programs for them, you’re doing it in ways that has to be transmitted to thousands of people across hundreds of locations, right?
HAND: So describe those columns because I think I heard that you know, when I think of a fashion brand that has, like a Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, its own brick and mortar, I think of retail employees, almost as little islands on each store, right because they have store managers and they’re in different states, cities. And then I think of the other employees, whether they are design employees or they’re more sort of executive. You know, an executive covers a lot, right? It covers the marketing function, it covers the production function, you know? How do you view those? Are they three different distinct areas of employees? Are they two? Are they 17?
So training programs and policies and commission programs and all the things that we do to touch the stores, ways to develop them, that’s really a unique group that has to be handled differently. On the corporate side, I might make it three by saying that corporate world definitely can. Although the work we do may be relevant to everyone, you might build a talent management program that would be applicable to the creative group and the finance guy. But I think in the daily management of it, back to that psychology we talked about, how you manage, how you talk to, expectations you have of meeting the sometimes dry deliverables that we asked for. I think it’s important to respect the uniqueness and the work styles of the difference between a senior vice president of design versus you know, someone in office or HR. Both do the work, but they just work with them differently.
HAND: Well, and it’s interesting, I mean, to almost visualize those three types of employees you know, you certainly have…the brand carriers are probably the ones in retail, right, they have to be. And we’ll talk about that. I’d love to, you know, hear about dress codes and policies and things, because that’s a nice area where the law and personal expression intersect or buttheads. But you know, so they are the brand carriers. The designers often are unique individuals, right? They may be wearing vintage clothes and paint splatter, you know, you got to sort of left them lead that one. And then your C suite executives are, you know…
MEZZO: They look like us.
HAND: They’re dressed in suits and, you know, so it’s an interesting, you know, ecosystem.
MEZZO: Yeah, I’ve always try to be approachable. I think one of the things I’m proudest of is creating HR departments that people actually want to interact with, and reach out to. You know, so you look at me today, maybe it’s a good example white button down shirt to represent you know, whatever you want to say, corporate leadership? but then the silver Michael Kors, trainers or sneakers, you know, to kind of remain connected to people and have them see us as real.
HAND: Well, we’ll get you know what you’re wearing, because that is going to be a component of the conversation. But on the HR function, you know, on the many challenges that associate managing people, diversity. How…And this is an agnostic question as to Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, but you have worked with some of the major companies for whom diversity is a big issue. How does a corporation like that handle it?
MEZZO: I think we look at it in a couple of ways. So one that jumps right to mind is I think the best companies are doing their best to ensure that you have at the senior most level, clear representation, a nice balance of mix of gender and race at the most senior level. And why is that important? It’s important because when the 13th guy in the que can look to leadership, and see people that look like them and remind them of themselves, they get inspired to stay, they have the ability to look to that and say, I can be that CFO because she’s doing that role right now. So I think smart companies are looking to make sure they’re diverse at the most senior level. Because what else happens, that group of highly successful diverse managers are also really connected. They’re mentoring, they have a community of people that they’re reaching out to, and suddenly, you see this nice flow of a balance and a mix coming to your organization.
And obviously, diversity is more than just race and gender, but it’s how we talk to people, it’s how we work with people. It’s the extroverts, respecting the introverts in the meeting room, and making sure that they all have a voice. So I like to remind people that diversity…I went to the race and gender piece first, but it’s so much more than that.
HAND: Well, it’s interesting, as a practitioner, often when we’re having discussions surrounding termination, or potential claims that a current or former employee might be threatening, one of the first questions is sort of, if it’s a store location, ie that kind of Island, I was talking about, what’s the composition of employees at that store location? Or if it’s a smaller brand that has say, only 35 employees, what’s the overall composition from a socio economic, from a gender and race basis to evaluate how high the risk of a claim being brought?
MEZZO: Sure .
HAND: Do you track that? And in tracking it, I mean is there a concerted effort to balance the various components of diversity within an organization as big as the ones you’ve worked at?
MEZZO: You know, I will tell you, there’s never a moment where you say there’s a number that you’re trying to achieve, I think at the core, you know, what I’ve always preached and taught is that diversity management is smart business, surrounding yourself with a mix of people who create a diverse landscape is going to contribute to innovation and uniqueness and different ideas to share. So we just continue to push to our talent acquisition teams and our field leaders because a lot of the field leaders do their recruiting on their own because you just never seem to have enough recruiters to get to that 800 store.
HAND: And for the listeners that don’t know what a field recruiter is.
MEZZO: Basically, someone who’s probably not based in the home state where your company is based. They sit in a region, they learn that market, they know the top five best managers in every mall that they’re responsible for, and they’re out pounding the pavement. They’re sitting on mall benches, and they’re interviewing the next store managers. But I think other than the point I raised around ensuring that senior leadership is diverse, I’d say the other thing that the talent acquisition teams do or recruitment teams, is they do their best to put together what we call a diverse palette. So a manager or a hiring manager, which is the word we use for someone who has an open job and is doing the hiring. If we present them a nice blended mix of different styles and ages and races and backgrounds and thought processes and extroverts and introverts, you give them this chance to see this nice kind of world that they can choose from versus giving them one set type which is not interesting and not driving creativity.
HAND: Yeah, I think, you know, back to those classes of employees, or categories of employees. On the retail side, I imagine some brands that are maybe narrower with respect to product offering the product offering itself may sort of self-select its customer.
HAND: From a socio economic standpoint. Do you think that there is a an unfortunate default for brands like that to be looking to hire from a particular socio economic class because of that, or do they feel now the retail environment, you know, should still have diversity notwithstanding that the customer base itself isn’t diverse.
MEZZO: Yeah, I think the companies are smart to, especially in these days, having beyond your wildest imagination in terms of access to data and were hiring data scientists. Now, I didn’t know what that was when I was earlier years in my career, but you have all this customer data, you need to be smart and have your selling floor, be a microcosm of the market that you’re in. So yes, maybe certain brands are going to have a demographic that they sell to, and they absolutely need to represent that. But I always tell people, let’s say your demographic is super young. Let’s not forget that the grandmother of that person might also be the shopper. She’s probably the one with the credit card. And you need to, in some ways have that environment when someone’s looking through the window, be an appealing place for the customers hearing it.
HAND: Well, this is…I mean, we’ve talked about it, but maybe more specifically with your experiences. The way in which the HR department works with the legal department. And obviously, it works with the legal department in a number of ways. But at the organizations that you worked at, how was that coordination? Was legal embedded in HR? Was legal separate?
HAND: In my experiences, it’s often that legal is…I’ve seen it both ways. It’s either a separate entity with a Chief General Counsel reporting into the CEO. That’s how we were at Kors. I’ve seen it in my days at Ralph, legal was under the HR lead, but absolutely attached at the hip. And especially when companies were large enough to have employment lawyers as a part of their team, those employment lawyers were the ones that we worked especially close with. And it varied. I mean, whether it’s helping us build policy documents, right. So we have a business need. And that’s really a good point to stop on maybe, as everything we do starts with a business need. We talked about dress code, and then we’ll get to that. There’s an obvious situation. We respond to that by building a policy.
And what I’ve always liked the approach to be is that HR takes a crack at the document, the policy, the proposed termination, and we bring that to our legal partners, less about saying, will you make the decision for us? And more about, we I think this is what it is and what it should be. And then my hope is that our legal partners say, yes, we agree. And on occasion they won’t and they’ll push back. And that’s where the dialogue is, and we will ultimately want to ensure that we’re aligned with them.
HAND: Well, you know, Lee Sporen is a good friend of mine, so I’m sure there was overlap there.
MEZZO: There was, actually, at Ralph as well. So I knew Lee from Ralph. I knew Lee from Ralph and he was just leaving Kors when I got there.
HAND: For our listeners, he was the general counsel
HAND: For both of those places, and now teaches down at University of Pennsylvania, a fashion law course. He in fact, is helping Barbara Colston and I with the chapter on employment law for the fashion law textbook that we’re working on with Carolina [inaudible 19: 52]. So that’s great.
MEZZO: Yes, very much needed.
HAND: Yes, indeed. Indeed. And evolving. Well, I mean, such a rich subject here. Let’s pivot to maybe just a practical question, how does the termination go? Like, just walk us through a termination, the evaluation and the process? I guess I need to give you some facts, I mean.
HAND: You are terminating within a store, a Korean-American, 23 year old college graduate, whose sales performance was relatively low. And I’ll let you go from there.
MEZZO: Sure. I mean, I will want to know the full makeup of the person, age, race, gender, but that’s not going to ever be the driver. And I’m not trying to just make a politically correct statement here. The concept of termination starts way before any of the wrong doing right? It starts with building a landscape where you have clear and communicated guidelines around using your example sales expectations. My hope is that this person who’s about to be discharged for poor selling has been placed through our progressive discipline policy. So today isn’t the first day we spoke to you about that, you know, “Hey, Sam, you can’t sell, you’re not good at it. Not really sure why you’re here.” We would have spoken to him, coached him, shown them the numbers, posted up on the wall that he’s 18th out of 18 people on a regular basis. We would have ensured that he knew that his job was at risk way before he was terminated.
That’s why I actually always say terminations or firings of people is actually, not that it’s not difficult, but it’s often very clear, you’ve reached that point where you said, you know, Doug, this is probably not going to be a surprise for you, which is different…
MEZZO: Which is different than the alternative, which is probably one of the more difficult things an HR person has to do, which is we’ve made a business decision that the org structure doesn’t work in your role, even though you’re a high performer is no longer on our org chart and your jobs being eliminated. Those are the especially difficult ones where compassion and my high level of empathy, which I’m proud to say I have, but it’s those nights where I take it home. And, you know, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but would be a night for single malt scotch, right? So that’s…
HAND: Yeah, the writing’s on the wall.
HAND: If it weren’t the morning, we would have that in our cups.
MEZZO: No, I mean, as an attorney, you know, I’ve been present at multiple terminations as well,; least favorite part of the job. I guess just maybe diving in a little bit deeper. How does the actual process go? So who’s in the room when it’s done?
HAND: What are the words that whoever is saying it is coached to say?
MEZZO: If legal’s in the room, that’s certainly a possibility. If not, there’s often at least one other person in the room as a witness. It could be the person’s manager, it could be another HR person, they’ll usually be one driver of the conversation. So say it was me and it was you I was talking to, one of the things that I teach is to ensure that this is the shortest path to the end of the conversation. This is not a time for love that tie, how’s the family? This is, “Doug, this is going to be a difficult conversation. I’m going to guess this is not going to be a surprise because you’ve already been placed on final warning for your sales performance. The business expectations are at a certain level and you’re consistently not meeting those expectations because of that,” or I might have added a line that said, “If you recall, in your final warning, we said that if this continues it could lead to something up to and including discharge. Well, unfortunately, that’s been the decision that we’ve made to discharge you effective immediately,” and then we would take them through the nuts and bolts of unemployment benefits and all of you know, contact information all the dry.
HAND: Now, let’s ratchet the heat up a little bit. Let’s say it’s a high risk situation, let’s say that they are poor performer, that data is objective. However, in the middle of the termination conversation, the employee says, “Well, you know, last week, my manager pushed me into one of the fitting rooms and fondled my body and I didn’t report it because he said that I’d be fired, and now I’m being fired. I’m going to go talk to a lawyer about this.”
MEZZO: Sure. Well, I would…so there’s usually two types of pushback. One is they disagree, that’s still a pretty clear path to we’re going to stick with…
HAND: Disagree on the objective data with respect to sale.
MEZZO: Right, in other words, I think it’s just because you don’t like me, I think, you know, my numbers are low, but it’s because you give me the bad hours during the week. That’s something we probably would still push through. With the example you gave, I’d probably make the decision to say, “Well, that’s new information, we didn’t have that before. Sorry that you didn’t bring it to us sooner. That’s very serious. We take those allegations seriously.”
And so I would probably weigh in and say that we should suspend this person at this point, conduct the investigation into what they complained about. Maybe before they left I might ask them for a written statement. And then we go to work and we would investigate the situation because…That may or may not affect the discharge decision but we need to know that. And I take the approach of leadership; management will always have the burden greater than the more junior person because they have the power.
HAND: Yeah. And that’s the law as well?
MEZZO: Absolutely. I didn’t just make that up.
HAND: And so that investigation is done and documented.
HAND: Yeah. And how was that done? Is that a memo to file? Is that there’s an actual form that you use, so that it’s the same?
MEZZO: Yeah, there’s usually a pretty, pretty standard template ID form that we’d have them fill out. And we’d have them sign it. I know, some companies have, you know, it depends on the situation too. Oftentimes we have issues of theft. And the issue might be brought to us through our loss prevention department, which in addition to legal becomes another great partnership that we make. They are…this is a terrible analogy, but they’re almost like police in that they unearthed the situation and then they bring us the case, if you will.
HAND: Got it. And so those are in-house people or is that a security firm?
MEZZO: No, you might find an external third party that would be someone that we’d have for let’s say, a guard at a doo. But loss prevention is typically embedded in the company.
HAND: And loss prevention for those of you that don’t know what the term means, it’s basically checking your bag and your person for items that were on the sales floor that you’re living with.
MEZZO: Absolutely. And as you get more elevated in loss prevention in terms of your role, it’s not unlike other areas where senior loss prevention is not just executing things like bag checks, that’s what their team will do. They’re driving policies in partnership with HR around safety and things like that. So
HAND: Have there also been instances you know, with some many purchases now being online, and if you have a credit, a store credit or a gift credit card, have there been sort of within those islands of store shenanigans around, store credit cards or you know other ways to in effect from a paper trail, show, “No, I bought this, but essentially, you somehow obtained a massive amount of credit.”
MEZZO: Are you saying more could an employee do that?
MEZZO: Sure. Yeah. I mean, you’d be…Well, maybe you wouldn’t be amazed because you’re in the business. So, yeah, I mean, we’ve kind of seen it all in terms of employees finding ways in which to, you know, unfortunately abuse the system. And loss prevention, that group plays a huge role for us because they will do the study, they will do the analysis, they will look at…an example I can remember was an employee who, it’s within our policy to buy something online with your discount and have it sent to someone else, right? And it’s also okay for it to go to this other address, right? But it’s not okay for the credit card to be someone else’s credit card, because then it’s John’s discount that only he’s eligible for And somehow, Doug Hand is getting the product, it’s getting charges card, and he’s getting it at the discounted rate. That’s discount abuse. And so they bring us cases like that, where they’d say, person X has made $70,000 worth of purchases, none of which were paid by their credit card, and none of which went to their home. So we’d have to call that a red flag.
HAND: Yeah, side business. Other examples from the frontline. I mean, so social media is massive. Employees typically are governed by a policy with respect to what they can post, what they can’t post about the company. What are some instances where that’s been violated? Or, well, and instances of just on someone’s social media feed, something was posted that was so objectionable, maybe related to the company or not that it resulted either in a termination or a warning?
MEZZO: Sure. I mean, we have very clear social media policies. So like everything else I mentioned, we would start with, you know, depending upon the severity of it, with the conversations reminders, asking people to sign the policy so that they know. But in some of the cases, I can remember the things that have raised flags for us have been around sexual content, nudity, people referencing our company in negative ways.
So we have, you know, a lot of the policy speaks to ensuring that people are not misrepresenting themselves or having a negative view of the organization or we do have people that have createdInstagram accounts for their business. And those are a little more secure because it’s by invite only, and it’s actually very often use as ways to promote…District and reach regional managers who are field leaders will use those environments to say, “Hey, here’s a video we want you all to watch.” So it has a lot of very positive aspects to it, but like everything else that has to be governed for extreme uses and for inappropriate content.
HAND: Yeah, yeah, I mean in in smaller organizations, it can be tricky because it’s very difficult for certain consumers to know the voice of the brand you know, somebody who you know is a store manager is posting about some store event that’s happening and showing assets from the company along with that, it starts to sound like the company’s speaking.
MEZZO: What’s made it more difficult in the world we’re in now with traffic numbers being significantly down, one of the ways HR is involved in helping the business thrive is through things like building policies around employees bringing their own devices to work, clienteling, getting apps where they can reach out to their customers all that is necessary in this day and age where I need things to bring you in, because you’re just not coming in like you used to. But with that comes again, you know, lots of legalities around [crosstalk32:14] data privacy, the fact that you’re…
HAND: And directly contacting, on behalf of the company, someone that hasn’t consented, potentially…
HAND: …To you having their email address or their phone number, text them. Yeah, I mean, there are so many ways to be contacted.
MEZZO: Right. Or you’re a very passionate, hardworking employee who’s thriving and your numbers are off the charts but we find out that you’re doing a lot of your clienteling at 10: 30 at night, sitting on your couch in your pajamas. Thank you for the hard work but you’re technically off the clock and now I’m required to pay you but I can’t if I don’t know you’re doing that.
MEZZO: So, there’s complexities. I joke with my friends and finance and say “everything you do is black and white, everything I do is in a gray.”
HAND: Well, let’s talk about that because there are smaller brands that we’ve worked with. That believe it or not, and they haven’t had in house HR; that is believable,
HAND: But consequently, haven’t really had a handle on exempt versus non-exempt employees. Maybe just described that distinction and some of the pitfalls that a company that hasn’t recognized that distinction can find itself in.
MEZZO: Well, exempt is your management and all that title means, is you’re exempt from ever earning overtime. Jokingly, we say that means the company can work it to the bone.
HAND: 4000 hours.
MEZZO: Yeah, the benefit for that person is they probably have greater freedoms. I have a doctor’s appointment, I come in at 10: 30, my pay is the same, whether I work till 10: 30, my pays the same. That’s like a leadership mindset or an executive mindset. The non-exempt people are your hourly employees and they are required to be paid for every single hour that they work. And I don’t know how deep you want me to get into but I’ll say one of the other complexities is around what roles get named exempt versus non-exempt.
MEZZO: Because companies have been accused in the past of calling people exempt, who probably shouldn’t be, and the requirement is that you spend the bulk of your time doing management things.
HAND: That’s one of the categories?
HAND: There are several, some relate to creative design employees, but I’ve seen companies that consider not only the creative director who is clearly exempt, but all the way down the chain to the lowest pattern maker. And they’ve just been under the assumption that now we’ve let them all know that they’re exempt. We’ve classified them as exempt so they’re exempt; the law just doesn’t see it that way.
MEZZO: Right. I can see them thinking that because they’re saying even the lowest level person is highly creative, and they’re doing things that take wild amounts of imagination and skill. But that would be a tough one to sell, and so we have to often do studies. And again, all of this that we’re talking about, that sort of lives on the certainly dryer side of things that we do in HR.
HAND: Because it involves the lawyers.
MEZZO: Well, yes, we also love all the development areas of HR that we get involved in, and I mentioned earlier the life cycle of employees and the teaching moments and stuff like that.
HAND: Well, maybe let’s talk about some of that, the team building elements, you know, what are some of the fun things that HR gets to be involved in? And do those come out of a learning from being trained in HR, or those kind of the wacky Warby Parker type that like, “Hey, we’re just going to call today, bike Tuesday and everybody rides a bike?”
MEZZO: I think it runs the gamut, you have to have those. People are asking for these things more now, Bring Your Children to Work Day, that we do, Bring Your Kids to Work Day and then people asking Bring Your Pet to Work Day; a lot of that. We do summer Fridays and all that other stuff so I think you have to have those things. Google has a rock climbing wall, I don’t know that many people have that but those are the things that makes on the Best Companies to Work list. I think people just want to know that you’re sensitive to their work life balance. I heard an expression “people want their nine to five to feel like they’re five to nine,” meaning companies give them flexibility to be on the move and not tied to a desk and mobile and on their phones. And that’s what I think smart companies are moving towards with flex hours and occasionally working from home.
But slightly on the more formal side, but still fun, are all things like development programs, where you give people incentives to thrive and when they perform better, or just the pure aspect. What I love to teach is just how does one take ownership for their own career? I often talk to people about, that you can’t promise, you can’t be guaranteed that you’re going to have a manager who cares about your development; one of my bosses once said, “no one will care more than you about your own development.” So when I mentor and coach people, I talked to them about putting things like “my development” on their agenda when they’re meeting with their boss, and making sure that they build development plans for themselves that says “over and above my goals and all the business stuff I’m supposed to deliver, what are we working together on to make me better? What muscles? Am I getting to stretch at the gym?” So if you tell me, “John, please work on your public speaking,” I might come back to you and say, “In what ways are you putting me in that scenario to help me build that muscle?”
MEZZO: We both agree it’s an opportunity for me so then let’s work on that together and we try to coach managers to be sure they spend time on people’s development.
HAND: Okay, well, so let’s talk about a touchy subject, which is dress codes, dress policy?
HAND: And specifically, retail employees. Obviously as avatars of the brand, you’re selling the stuff, you’ve got to be wearing this stuff. So walk me through, you know, typical dress policy, and maybe isolate some areas where it’s broken down.
MEZZO: Sure, well it does start with the brand because it’s going to be different; some companies choose uniforms. And I know you know this, once you make that choice, you have some clarity and you have some ease, and I don’t have to worry about the fashion choices that someone made. But I have to dry clean, I have to own other costs related issues with that, and one could argue it’s also less interesting to the customer.
HAND: Right, can’t wear a current season if it’s a uniform.
MEZZO: Yeah, right. So what we have found ourselves doing, is we over and above giving employees a robust discount. We give them what’s called a Wardrobing Program. So several times per season, they get to shop within the store, they work and are given actual pieces: footwear dresses, men’s clothing, and so on so forth. And so there are wardrobing moments, which helps us as a leadership team say, “I can give you several things to choose from, and it’s a finite number of things. So I know when you choose whichever you want for your body type or so on. It’s going to be in line with what we like you to wear.” Andthat helps us kind of shape the look of the floor and it allows everyone to stay current.
But some of the sidebar issues with wardrobing are things like piercings, tattoos, hair color; those are tough. And I’m laughing because I’m looking at here saying “to find the right words.” I remember once trying to say something like, “you can’t just say natural hair color.” What does that mean?
MEZZO: You have to be careful, you’re not discriminating against any one group. I think we once found really bad language and says something like “fair colors normally found on a human head” or something like that. But I’ve seen, companies I’ve worked for they’ve said, “no visible tattoos.” But then we might make a choice to put a model in an ad that has a tattoo and then suddenly you’re thinking, “hmm, do I want to keep that policy,” because you want the inside to represent what’s happening, so that’s a lot of discussion.
HAND: Well, it’s the Laws of Style.
HAND: The book that you’ve read.
HAND: I talk about personal presentation as an important component of your work and your observers comfort level with who they’re dealing with. Certainly, as a lawyer, that’s best captured at least for a man and tailored clothing, I think.
HAND: So, I tend to wear suits. For you, as both an executive but also head of HR, so maybe more of an exemplar to employees, how do you choose to present yourself? And we’ll just dovetail this question with what you’re wearing today because you look pretty magnificent.
MEZZO: Oh, thanks.
HAND: And you are doing, it’s not a high low. What would it be called? I find it very difficult to pair sneakers with tailored clothing.
MEZZO: It feels very weird to me, I have to admit.
HAND: You’ve pulled it off today. So just go through the what you’re wearing, what season and the why?
MEZZO: Sure, well, unlike a lot of your guests, I don’t claim to be a super ‘fashionista,’ I just have a passion for it. I’m the guy who is always telling his friends, “Dude, that suits is way too big on you, you don’t need to wear a suit that looks like a circus tent, you can wear tighter fitting clothing.” But today most of what I’m wearing is theory.
MEZZO: Including the button down shirt, I don’t have to do the same with the same but I just happened to be today, through on this suit and I think sneakers are Kors.
HAND: Okay, and they’ve got a little metallic sheen to them.
MEZZO: Yeah, they’re a little tin man.
HAND: Enough to bring those into the shock for our viewers, very nice
MEZZO: I will do that for you.
HAND: And then the pop of a colorful sock.
MEZZO: Little color on the sock. I think there has to be for me, start with a work day, a nice marriage between professional serious but always allowing humor and fun and that might be some of the theater background that I mentioned earlier. I don’t want to ever take myself or my role too seriously whereas people waltz off and they don’t see us as approachable. So it’s rare that I ever wear a tie. It’s just not the culture in the company.
HAND: Sale service are so low.
MEZZO: But I go back to, I know and I look, Ralph.
HAND: Does Michael Kors even make ties?
MEZZO: We do, yes.
MEZZO: I own a couple and I debated whether to wear them.
HAND: Obviously, Ralph always make ties.
MEZZO: Yes, oh my gosh, yeah, and he cut them out off tablecloths when he was coming up. But Ralph, used to always say “You dress for the day.” Are you the elephant hunter? Are you the rider? Are you the creative designer?” And he was always that, when he wore the pinstripe suit, I would know Okay, he’s talking to Wall Street today or where he’s in design meeting, so he’s got the jeans and the belt buckle. So, I loved that about that lesson that I feel like I got from working there. But honestly, I’ve worn a tracksuit to work, I think when I met you before, I was wearing a track jacket. We don’t have to be overly formal but I always ask, I want the team to be on brand. And even if it isn’t the brand you work for, especially in the stores, that’s a requirement we asked for is, if it’s not the brand can you ensure that it’s, brand- like.
HAND: Well so on the suit a little bit, we will stay on the suit because I know Michael makes suits; just put a pin in that. My first wife actually worked for Michael back, just after the chapter, way, way back when it was Michael, Lance and just a few PR people; I wish she’d gotten equity. But I know Michael makes suits because she got the discount and I used to go shopping, that old store on Madison, up in the high 60s.
HAND: But Men’s suiting, the demise of men’s suiting, the death of men’s suiting has been sort of prognosticating about by many commentators. What are your thoughts there as a professional but as also someone who sees everybody at retail and how they put themselves together?
MEZZO: This isn’t, I hope you don’t mind, I wouldn’t treat it as a Kors or a Ralph or any question. I think it’s just, in general, I always say “for a man to your point, it is the easiest thing you can do.” It’s hanging there, it’s a pant and a jacket…
HAND: It’s for animals.
MEZZO: Right. And I actually love doing it because I just enjoy dressing up and I think I’ll always when I coach people or mentor them I talked to them about if you’re going to skew in one direction in the workplace skewed towards that look. I think a great thing for men is jeans and shoes and a jacket because it’s still really feels dressed up but it’s totally comfortable and cash. I look at friends who are in finance, I thought that would never happen there and they’re not doing suits every day. So I look at it as I like having it as an option and it’s just become an option that I choose less and less as time goes on. But I still buy new suits and like doing that and I’m certainly not a design expert, just the HR guy, but I did always pride myself on wanting to be on brand and whatever company I worked for.
HAND: Yeah, now how about ties, so you never wear the tie or infrequently?
MEZZO: Not never, but like yours I’d wear in a heartbeat, I think that’s awesome. I love the knit and the square. Because I remember those when I was in the 80s growing up and they were in and if I still had them, I could pull out an old tie actually wear that; I think that’s pretty cool.
HAND: But I just find that that need a break, color or texture, both wise here if I’m wearing a suit because otherwise it looks maybe like I’m just in a uniform. You’ve got the nice little pop of the pocket square which I noticed matches the socks and color palette which is very nicely done, well executed. Is that your little differentiator?
MEZZO: Yeah, I agree with you though. One of the decisions I made this morning was how much white space was going to be here and even thought about just doing a sweater but I was like, I don’t know about that.
HAND: The big chain with the Volkswagen symbol
HAND: or Mercedes?
MEZZO: Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn so I didn’t know style when I was a kid growing up. I think I wore red pants and white Capezio to see Rocky III, so that was Brooklyn in the 70s. Anyway, in the same way, I think this could regularly feel a little bare so I would probably more often than not, not choose a white shirt unless I was doing a tie. So you probably see this on me more regularly but with a denim button down shirt, love that chambray style.
HAND: Textile differentiation is really value by [ inaudible 48: 17 ]
MEZZO: Yeah, again, I’ll even do like the chambray shirt and the jeans and sometimes people jokingly say, “Oh, doing the double denim there.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s okay, if you break it up with a brown belt.” Yeah, yeah.
HAND: But yeah, for sure, and blazers to your point so outside of the suit, and not even really blazers, what you would properly call an odd jacket.
HAND: It does not pair with the pants; it can be a great look. And I think often looks better in that context without a tie because with the tie and then different color, but there’s just a lot going on.
MEZZO: I’m hoping after today’s podcast that all your podcast listeners are going to start asking their HR people for fashion advice—Not likely.
HAND: Well, what brands do you like from a design perspective? Obviously, you’ve got your defaults to the places you’ve been, and you’re fond feelings for them, but from a design perspective in terms of men’s wear, or women’s wear, who’s doing it right?
MEZZO: It’s so weird, I thought you might ask me that question, I don’t have a wide variety. I’ve been the guy who’s typically worn the clothing of the place he’s worked to the point of exhaustion, but…
HAND: I love that discount.
MEZZO: I know, I know. It’s so hard because I say to myself, well, that’s the kind of stuff you can wear on the weekends and why wouldn’t you buy your own brand so you can wear it to work. Honestly, what I find myself wearing on the weekends is so much, is what we call athleisure now. I’m in Nike and all these just track jackets.
HAND: That puts you squarely in the majority of consumers.
MEZZO: I love Burberry, I like that sort of classic look I just love a crisp black or raincoat with the short jeans and shoes.
HAND: That’s very Ralph, too.
MEZZO: Yeah, I think that was my DNA and I’ll still shop it Ralph every now and then. When I was at VS I didn’t have a brand to wear and I know this isn’t going to wow, you’re a super high end fashion these people. But I found the J.Crew men store and I thought that was great for me and the Ludlow suits fit me well and they were slim and it was my body type.
HAND: Well, one of my clients, Todd Snyder used to design there, now has his own brand. I think J. Crew and now we can pivot to some retail woes. J. Crew obviously has been in trouble for a while, some of the quality has clearly gone down. I know that they’re selling Made Well, which will generate capital for them and I think they’ll get it back on track because J. Crew for decades was a tremendous value proposition and I think still can be. But to other, specific to retail we’ve got Barney’s going through chapter 11, few days ago, Forever 21 announced…
MEZZO: Just read that, yeah. And now there’s a whole thing about, I think is recently this morning or the other day, just about the pure number of vacant real estate retail storefronts. And I think that’s a sign of, I know, one of the things I was working on at Kors, was the fact that we had to be smart and cut some brown leaves off trees. It was in no way a sign of the lack of growth, it’s an amazing growth plan. But you have to be smart and close underperforming stores, we didn’t invent that concept; it was the right thing to do.
But when you do that, you’re hopefully growing ecommerce at the same or better rate so that your total is still growing or you’re growing through expansion to other parts of the world like Europe and Asia and so on. So it’s exciting to see growth plan and back to the HR pieces, we feel we’ve contribute to helping businesses study where is the right place to move on from and then of that, then we get involved with the people and say, “Okay, the stores are closing and how do you then make sure you save the talented people and you find other work and other role for them.”
HAND: Right, that’s a big component of it, too because back to sort of my island analogy, you’ve got some strong performers at each store.
HAND: And you don’t want to lose that talent, but because the store itself is typically regional, unless you’re in a big Metropolitan center…
MEZZO: It’s hard.
HAND: where they can just move, 20 blocks away.
MEZZO: That’s difficult.
HAND: To uproot and move to another state.
MEZZO: It’s easier to do in the bigger cities in corporate roles, you can try to save. It’s true, that is true, in those remote locations where you unfortunately sometimes have to lose good people.
HAND: Well, in one question that I haven’t asked and want to ask from more of a legal perspective; how do you feel about restrictive covenants? And here I’m talking about— and I want your reaction with respect to retail employees, non-competes and non-solicits. That of course, last for as long as you’re employed, but what about tale periods if someone’s being paid? What are the policies, and you don’t need to name any branch or just, how has that been? And I know before I let you answer that, when you do have real strong performers, often they’ve got a book of business; they have clients. So, you don’t necessarily want superstar employee acts walking out the door, across the street to Burberry and taking all of those Kors or Ralph or other clients with him or her. How do you handle that and how do you feel about it?
MEZZO: I’ve, been more of a fan. I’ve been of the belief that it’s really tough, unless you’re super, super senior level people that maybe have it baked into a contract. I find it really hard to legally prevent someone from going where they want to go. So I’ve been a fan more of the non-solicit than the non-compete. There’s a lot of complexity around upholding the non-compete in places that I’ve worked, where they’ve had it. It’s really, really hard to enforce. I like the non-solicit so for example, in places I’ve worked, where if you work for the company, automatically you have a year non solicit. Maybe if you’re more senior and you received equity, we might have asked you to have a two year non-solicit. So, I can say “If Doug is a high performer and he left us I can rest assure for two years that he can’t come in our playground and play in our sandbox and take our people.”
HAND: And non-solicit with respect to your employees or your customers or both?
MEZZO: I’ve dealt less with the customer piece.
HAND: Because that’s really de facto and non-compete. I can’t bring my customers and obviously my customers are free agents they can go wherever they want to go.
MEZZO: We typically tell people we own your client book, because the companies do.
MEZZO: But if I know I’m leaving and I have 300 clients, do I not know enough to remember their names or write them down somewhere else. To your point, then I show up in the next place and, I’m honest enough to know that as recruiters, if I want to talk to you, I’m hopefully going to bring you in, in hopes that I can benefit from your clients; so it works in both ways. We have this HR world and if you’re an HR partner, and I was an HR at Gucci, and I was at Ralph I’d say, “Hey, you know, we’ve noticed several people.”
HAND: Yeah, how have those conversations go? You pick up the phone and you say, “Sally…”
MEZZO: Before the booking comes in, it’s a little mobster; no I’m just kidding.
HAND: Exactly, I’m going to send the guys with bats.
MEZZO: So what I’ve done is, if it’s blatant, I had a case where, several of the people that have left of late have been going to these… I don’t know what we’re calling them…these marijuana companies? I forget the names they’re selling. So it’s very clear when two people from the same company go to these unknown places. And we’ve called them and we’ve said, “We’re not sure if you’re aware that so and so has an non-solicit, so we couldn’t stop him from coming to you. But the fact that he took so and so, he’s in violation of his non-solicit and we are actually going to enforce it and you’ll be getting an invoice from us and we’ll send it.” And sometimes they’ll pay and sometimes they won’t.
HAND: The invoices with respect to the legal fees that you incur?
MEZZO: There’s fees to replace that person. So let’s say they’re a district manager in the field, we may be determined that the cost to backfill that role is pick a number or whatever and we might
HAND: And that invoice is sent to the former employee or to the new company?
MEZZO: It’s sent to the employee because they’re the one that we’re actually…
HAND: In the contract with.
MEZZO: …But typically they run to their new company and to prevent that, sometimes if I knew you were going to pick a company, we might ahead of that send them a note proactively that says, “FYI, the person you just hired Congrats, but they’re under a non-solicit.
HAND: Yeah, please, be aware.
MEZZO: So that’s kind of the approach we take. It’s hard to collect anything. It’s more about you’re saying, “Well, okay, we’ll want you to maybe just extend the non-solicit,” or we give them a strong finger shake.
HAND: Well, pivoting a bit two conglomerates. Okay, so Michael Kors is now Capri Holdings.
MEZZO: It is.
HAND: Versace and Jimmy Choo, those were the two big acquisitions. Coach is now Tapestry, and Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade. And this is the playbook that the European conglomerates have been playing from for a couple of decades now. Do you think it’ll work here in the US? Well, let me stop there and you think it’ll work, but the second follow up question is, what are the efficiencies from an HR perspective of having a conglomerate? Are their back office elements to HR that even across brands can be meaningful?
MEZZO: First of all, I think I, we hadn’t talked about this, but I’ve actually moved on from Kors…from Capri. We don’t have to talk about this, but I’ve been finding some interest in actually starting my own consulting firm, in an effort to kind of bring what I’ve done for 30 years to either smaller businesses or the individual, but that’s a side conversation. The conglomerate thing, I can only speak from my own experiences to say, I think in this particular case, there was a conscious decision to have three very strong, powerful brands come into one place and be a holdings company. I’m pretty comfortable saying that the plan was to have everyone kind of continue to run their own businesses, they’re still presidents of all the businesses and all the design worlds are completely…
To your point, you make a good one, which is the back of how certainly technology, and systems wise and all of those things can be integrated and looked at. That’s really where we were when I left which was where our efficiencies, they were still separate HR departments for all three brands all under one Chief HR officer, so that was one sense of place of unity. But it was really very, very early stage. Will it work? I have no idea, except to say that I like everyone else I can listen to the very public Wall Street calls, and it always sounds to me like the street is very excited to hear about these other brands in addition to Kors when we were just Kors.
So it seems like the response is great, that people are happy to see the three together. I think it’s way, way too early to know what the impact will be on those three in particular. But I was at Ralph when they bought Club Monaco. And at the time, I don’t know that we thought it was the right thing. You’d have to ask them now what they think of that decision now, but…
HAND: I was at a big law firm when you sold it. I actually did that sale.
MEZZO: Oh really?
HAND: It was a Canadian company so has a lot of Canadian law elements, but…
MEZZO: But I think there is a lot to learn from me from each other.
HAND: Also those brands are quite distinct. I mean, obviously, Versace is a very unique proposition. And then Jimmy Choo is a product category, but all luxury, whereas I think Tapestry’s approach has been a little bit different in terms of price point and luxury. But we’ll see.
MEZZO: Yeah. I mean, all I can say those, I thought it I love that we did it because it was always stated as part of our plan. And I just love when you can have a strategy, and then actually deliver on it. And so I always kind of give the Kors team a thumbs up and say, “You said you were going to do this, you wanted to grow and have acquisitions, and you’ve done that.” And I think it was, you know, I think it will be…
HAND: Well executed. As George Copard would say, “I love it when a plan comes….”
MEZZO: Yes, right.
HAND: Well, we are out of time.
HAND: But thanks so much. That’s a wrap. And thanks for coming in and sharing with our listeners, your sage wisdom on HR retail, and the brands you worked.
MEZZO: Thanks very much. It was my pleasure. Thanks, Doug.
HAND: Bye now, listeners.
OUTRO: You’ve been listening to The Laws of Style with Douglas Hand. For more information, go to our firstname.lastname@example.org and you can also follow us on Instagram and twitter @handofthelaw. Thank you for tuning in, and stay stylish