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When Outfits Fit In

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If you went to private school—or had a close friend who did—you no doubt heard the song and dance about what a drag uniforms were. But when it comes to the business sphere, there’s no playing hooky. Contractors have many variables to consider when they decide whether to provide uniforms to employees.

Whether it’s bosses who fear resistance, workers who eschew new rules, or uncertainties about overall costs and benefits, making the move to uniforms raises many questions. Here are some answers to guide the decision-making process.

Professionalism: While uniforms are given in the fast food and hospitality industries, it’s not as common to see them worn in other sectors—while they’ve disappeared from others. Think back to how 1950s gas station attendants wore crisp outfits complete with hats, and compare that to today’s grease monkeys. It’s a fact that many workers view uniforms as inconvenient to wear and maintain, especially in today’s era of relaxed dress.

But once managers gently put uniform policies in place, there’s ample evidence of a two-way positive effect. A study by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by Kathy Nelson and John Bowen found a significant relationship between uniform design and employee attitudes. They found, for instance, that uniforms can increase employees’ self-confidence and enhance credibility on the job.

Value: One value component involves branding: that is, how much free advertising or exposure you get. An employee dressed smart and sporting the colors of your business conveys an image that’s indelible and identifiable. The current ad campaign for Sears and its “Blue Crew” appliance repair team is a high-visibility example, with men and women wearing a combination of polos and long-sleeve button up shirts (all in dark or sky blue).

Yet uniforms may level the playing field to where some employees underperform. They could think it’s OK to maintain the status quo of their comrades in similar dress—thus putting a drag on your bottom line performance. It’s important for supervisors to treat uniformed employees as both the same—part of one cohesive team—and different. In professional sports, the uniform doesn’t keep star players from rising to rewards and recognition.

Cost: Clearly, uniforms add an expense to your budget. First you’ll have to weigh whether it’s best to rent or purchase. A recent analysis by Jim Burnett, executive vice president and chief development officer of SMS Holdings Corp. (the parent company of ServiceWear Apparel), shows some striking differences. The average flat-rate cost for renting five changes of standard polyester-cotton uniform pants and shirts comes to about $6 per week per employee, or $312 per year. But buying those five pants, long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts brand new costs about $135—a savings of $177 per employee per year, or 57 percent.

Another way to keep costs contained is to avoid going overboard. Outfits with silly frills or garish excess backfire in any number of ways: from limiting employee movement at work to causing your crew embarrassment. Sharp and simple projects a powerful image and keeps costs down. Put another way: Just because the employees at a fast food place dress in uniforms doesn’t mean they have to doll up like the company mascot.

Lou Carlozo

Posted In: Management

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