Setting boundaries for staff behaviour is an issue for all companies, but even more so for those where staff wear a uniform. Whether they are at work or out at lunch, staff are immediately identifiable with the company brand, and the image they convey reflects on the company as a whole. Marks & Spencer, for example, recently banned staff from smoking in public while in uniform.
But HR’s intervention into the behaviour of staff outside work is a sensitive area, and brand experts warn against simply issuing edicts.
“If you get to the point where you’re introducing policies [on things like dress code] in a formal way, then I think the company’s culture is failing to engage people with what the brand really stands for,” says Thomas Burke, head of brand consultancy Dave.
Instead, says Burke, HR needs to instil in staff a collective sense of ownership about the company brand, so that employees know “instinctively” that certain things are wrong.
“They will have gone through that process of understanding and believing so will be able to say: ‘I know it’s wrong to have a cigarette in my hand when in uniform, or to have my shirt hanging out or to wear scruffy shoes’,” he explains. “It should be acceptable at a colleague-to-colleague level or supervisor-to-colleague level to say: ‘We don’t do that here’.”
The design of the company uniform plays a critical role, too, in making sure that staff project a polished image, according to Jenny Cutler, managing director of consultancy Image Counts.
“The problem often starts with the fact that uniforms don’t suit all people. When something is cheap and nasty, people don’t take care of their appearance. They just think: ‘I look horrid anyway.’ You’ve got to help people look good, so the uniform needs to be of reasonable quality.”
Employers also need to consider how the uniform’s image complements the company brand, according to Emma Phillips, managing director of Child Base, which employs 800 workers in its nurseries.
Complement the brand
Child Base upgraded the image of its “comfortable and fun” uniform of red polo shirts about five years ago. “We didn’t feel it necessarily gave out the professional image we wanted for our nursery practitioners, so they now wear a tailored shirt. It’s pale blue and identifies more closely with the nursing side of the profession,” says Phillips.
Child Base has rules about smoking or wearing jewellery in uniform for practical reasons to do with the health and safety of the children in their care, says Phillips. But when it comes to image issues, the management takes the lead.
“Staff look up to their line manager and expect their behaviour to be the example they would follow,” she says. “While you have a uniform on, you are representing the company you work for. You don’t stop being an employee when you walk out the door.”
Uniforms… Getting it right
- Ensure the design of uniform is of good quality and flattering – it should make employees want to look and feel good.
- Prove to staff that image matters. You cannot expect them to project a polished image in uniform if staff toilets are tatty or the reception area is untidy.
- Ensure leaders model positive behaviour themselves. They must ‘walk the talk’.
- Present the image and brand internally. Sell it to your own staff as you would externally.