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Beauty industry bullying: 'I saw strong women cry at their desks'

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Media captionBullying in the beauty industry is described as "toxic"

The British Beauty Council is calling for an independent body to be set up to investigate claims of bullying and unfair dismissal in the industry, which does not have a trade union. It comes after the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme uncovered cases of bullying across all levels of the industry.

"I was seeing grown women, strong women, crying at their desks. It was so toxic and harsh that people were just desperate to leave," says Sarah (not her real name), who had a senior role working for an international beauty brand.

She says her boss was a bully who spoke behind her back and told suppliers she was sharing their confidential information.

"After that, the bosses only gave me junior roles within projects and I was taken off the project I had been working on very successfully for two years," she says.

"I was ignored by HR [human resources] and the board of directors. I feel so much anger - but it's not even anger, it's heartbreak."

Sarah has since left the company.

The beauty industry contributed £14.2bn to the UK economy last year and employs one in every 60 people.

The Victoria Derbyshire programme has spoken to more than 20 people, from a company director to make-up artists in department stores, who claim to be victims of bullying, abuse and bad practice.

Many said they had suffered from anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts as a result.

Nearly all said the industry was facing an institutional bullying crisis but feared if they complained they would never work in it again.

It has no union, so employees can find they have no-one to put their case to or seek advice from outside their company.

'No future'

Many of those the Victoria Derbyshire programme spoke to had signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which are usually part of a deal where the employees are offered thousands of pounds for their silence.

But both Sarah and another woman said that despite signing, they still wanted their stories to be heard but with their identities disguised.

"Nicole", who worked as an executive for a well-known beauty company, says she was pushed out after telling her bosses she was pregnant.

'I was left out of meetings, I wasn't given information, they stopped cc'ing me in emails," she says. "Then, within 10 weeks of me coming back from maternity leave, I was told I didn't have a future in the company and that I should just leave.

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"I basically believed everything they told me, I believed I was a bad person. I was diagnosed with depression, with stress and burnout. I spent time in a facility. I'm really lucky I recovered… but so many people don't."

It is not just women who are affected. Zak, who is now a freelance make-up artist, says he has been treated badly in the past.

"There were a lot of times when they were like, 'Are you sure you want him to do your make-up? He's a guy, he doesn't know how to do make-up,'" he says. "People are greedy in that sense and they want everything to themselves and they don't care who they throw under the bus.

"I went through a bit of a depression phase, I felt everyone around me was fake."

'It's heartbreaking'

Employment lawyer Karen Jackson says she has dealt with hundreds of discrimination cases, including bullying and harassment in the cosmetics industry.

"I've dealt with similar claims against the same companies who don't seem to learn from past mistakes and who tolerate unacceptable workplace conduct," she says. "I don't understand why they won't address it and weed it out making life better for everyone."

But there are people in the industry trying to make a change.

Celebrity make-up artist Lan Nguyen-Grealis says she was a victim of bullying and harassment earlier in her career and uses the experience to be even kinder.

"It's all about sisterhood - a lot of the girls have freedom to come and speak to me offside whenever they need to, or if they need to let off steam it's fine," she says. "It's important the girls know this industry is amazing, but if you're a really nice person, you will sustain a great career. "

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The British Beauty Council represents the voices, opinions and needs of the industry.

After being shown the programme's findings, chief executive Millie Kendall said: "It's heartbreaking an industry that we are trying to pull together is so at each other's throats.

"It does fall on the government because this isn't just a beauty industry-related issue, this is a nationwide issue. I think there needs to be some sort of ombudsmen or an industry body set up to make sure there is a safe place for people to go."

The Department for Business said in a statement: "Through the Equality Act, employees are protected against harassment in the workplace on the grounds of gender, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation or age, and workers have remedies against this behaviour in the employment tribunals."

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