How Uniform is your Workforce?
Training Technology and Human Resources
by Sue Stedman of Sue Stedman Corporate Clothing Limited
In today’s workplace, is it more important to allow staff to express their individuality, or to express the company’s culture? This is one of many considerations in taking the important decision of whether to introduce a corporate uniform.
Many professionals are traditionally uniformed – those who need to be recognised in a crowded environment (transport operators, service industries, and security personnel), those who require protective clothing for health and safety reasons (chefs, health professionals, construction companies and fire fighters), and those who need to be identified for their status, such as judges. For others there may be a clear reason not to insist upon a uniformed workforce - those who are rarely in the public eye, those who need to express their individual identify through their clothes, and those whose work benefits from them dressing in a similar way to their clients.
The vast majority of companies fall between these clear distinctions, however. If you are in this situation, how do you decide whether to introduce a corporate uniform?
Identity is the central issue, but poses many questions. Perhaps the most controversial is to what extent religious and cultural identity may be accommodated. The importance of the hijab to the Islamic faith an acute example, as has been recently demonstrated by Ikea’s decision to introduce a branded hijab.
Simultaneously the identification of an individual’s role can be most effectively communicated by a corporate uniform. In these days of heightened security, we take assurance in being able to easily identify security figures by their clothing.
A lasting impression is formed in the first few seconds of a meeting - and 70% is visual. Of all the marketing and branding mediums, a uniform is perhaps the most visible representation of corporate culture, reflecting and reinforcing the quality and character of the brand: through a uniform, the company can assert itself as being modern or traditional, bold or understated, corporate or fun.
Sue Stedman of Sue Stedman Corporate Clothing Limited, has been designing uniforms for a range of clients, including Aviance UK, Berkeley Homes, Bryant Homes, the Royal Opera House and the Natural History Museum, for 16 years. During this time she has seen many companies moving towards having a uniform, rarely simply for a ‘corporate’ look: “Many companies today want to be seen as modern and approachable and this is reflected in a shift towards more casual uniforms. Branding is important and uniforms speak volumes about the company’s style, but the use of corporate colour is increasingly subtle, often with just a hint of the corporate colours in the weave,” says Sue.
“Putting the staff into dreary, cold, dark colours does not necessarily mean that they come across as efficient and professional, whereas a brighter, more cheerful uniform can bring about enthusiasm, and in doing so, considerably benefit customer services.”
This effect is seen no more clearly than in a recent fashion makeover by the Japanese prisons authority, where orange and green have been introduced to reduce violence. Shigemi Tanimoto of the justice ministry comments, “Colour experts told us the colours currently in use were too cold and aggressive. We hope to stabilise the mental states of inmates by giving them warmer and brighter colours.”
Regardless of how colourful or corporate the clothing, the uniformity in itself communicates certain standards and this avoids the problem of staff devising their own their dress code.
“There is a tendency that casual dress can lead to casual attitude. Instead, the company’s dress must reflect the seriousness of the job,” Sue Stedman comments. “When you are seeing a doctor, a headmaster or a financial advisor, you want to be confident in the people you are dealing with, to reassure you that you are making the right decision. A uniform also prevents people making social judgements about staff based on their dress, be the style fuddy-duddy or youthful, liberal or conservative, expensive or shoddy.”
A uniform enables staff to become ambassadors for their company and act accordingly. Invariably because they look smart and feel comfortable they are able to portray a more suitable image. “In being dressed in the company colours, staff immediately represent their company. A uniform that they enjoy wearing is important in motivating them to do so to the best of their ability,” says Sue.
“This is particularly important in sales. Sales staff are often both the first and the final in the sales process and so they have a vital role, in first capturing the interest of the potential purchaser, through to finally closing the sale. It is imperative that they feel and act professionally.”
The motivational impact of a corporate uniform should not be underestimated. In many cases, the introduction of the uniform in itself is a perk for employees, enabling them to dress smartly while saving money on a working wardrobe. A corporate uniform also ensures that clothes are suitable – footwear is comfortable and clothing is as warm or as cool as necessary.
As with any significant change, the best way to engender enthusiasm is to involve staff in the process, giving them a degree of ownership in the decision. Ideally companies should canvas views during the design stage and undertake wearer trials to test whether proposed garments can stand up effectively to the day-to-day rigours of the job, but the limitations of consultation must be understood and the final decision requires senior input.
Because a uniform is central to the company’s image and must be strongly ingrained in the culture of the company, Sue Stedman gets to know her clients’ companies well. “We carry out substantial research prior to even taking a brief from our client. We make it our responsibility to understand the company’s culture, corporate identify and ambitions for change in order to propose designs which are truly representative of the company and its staff.”
The introduction of a corporate uniform impacts on all aspects of the company’s output, simultaneously affecting staff motivation, customer services, internal communications and branding. As such, it is a human resources issue which needs to be managed strategically across all departments and requires extremely sensitive handling.
Sue Stedman of Sue Stedman Corporate Clothing Limited can be contacted on 01483 232329 / www.suestedman.com / firstname.lastname@example.org