Optometric Management Tip # 183 - Wednesday, July 20, 2005 Employees’ Shoes and Office Morale
The shoe style worn by your staff seems like an odd topic, doesn’t it? Don’t think I’m
running out of ideas to write about (not even close); I’ve actually received several emails
asking about this topic, and I must admit, I’ve faced it many times in my own practice.
It’s really not about telling you what shoe style to select, it’s about helping you manage
the aftermath when an employee challenges an office policy that has the potential to upset
co-workers and alter your professional practice image.
You might not think shoe fashion would be important enough to upset anybody, but if you
own a practice, I’m sure you’ve labored over it. Shoes are just one example of a situation
where an employer has a certain expectation that may conflict with an employee’s desire to
express some personal individuality.
Here is a typical scenario that could occur in any practice:
As the practice is started, the doctor/owner makes a decision about staff uniforms. To
provide a nice employment benefit and to give the practice a professional look, uniforms
will be paid for by the practice. A standard uniform style is selected and staff members
are allowed to order it in their size. The uniform could come from a local shop or from a
mail order catalog. Since shoes are more difficult to fit and one style may not work for
everyone, it’s decided that employees shall purchase their own. The style should be a white
nurse’s shoe or a plain white Keds-type sneaker. The uniform policy and dress code is not
actually written in an employment manual because the owner is busy and there are only two
All goes well for a few years as the practice grows, along with the size of the staff. Some
staff turnover occurs, and one day a female technician shows up for work wearing a backless,
open toe sandal with a heel. She feels the style is cute and sexy, but her co-workers think
it’s unprofessional looking. Side note: you could substitute any type of non-conforming shoe
style, like colorful Nike high-tops or rubber flip-flops. The doctor notices the shoes, and
doesn’t like the non-clinical look, but doesn’t say anything to the employee right away. When
a co-worker (wearing white Keds) mentions that the fancy shoe style is not within office
policy, the technician replies that she is obviously jealous. You get the picture … the
situation escalates, people’s feelings are hurt, co-workers begin to take sides, name-calling
and snide comments ensue, resentment and retaliation follow. Employee morale can begin to
decline fairly quickly in situations like this. The practice is no longer a nice place to
work because of the tension, and attitudes suffer. Allowed to fester, the organizational
culture of the practice could become embedded with negative energy.
What’s a doctor to do?
A doctor/owner who is fairly oblivious to such immaturity may begin to wonder why so many
employees exhibit poor attitudes on the job. Why is good help so hard to find? Patients
occasionally complain that the staff was rude to them, but the staff counter that notion by
saying it’s the patients who are rude – and crazy. Problems like this are enough to make a
doctor hate owning a practice!
On the other hand, the doctor who decides to step in and take care of this matter once and
for all can actually make the situation worse by jumping into the fray. By supporting one
employee group, the doctor alienates the other. Let’s say the doctor says the new shoe style
is not acceptable. The technician who bought them feels embarrassed, while her nemesis feels
victorious. Emblazoned by the doctor’s support, the victor exhibits a childish “told-you-so”
superiority. The employee with the new shoes demands that the boss reimburse her for the cost
of the shoes, because she can’t wear them and since they’ve been worn, can’t return them.
A sign is posted in the staff area of an optometrist’s office:
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
-- The Management
In my experience, a practice owner or manager who rules with an iron fist will have a tough
time obtaining the happy, caring attitude among staff that is so vital to building a successful
practice. After all, we work in a professional service business, not a factory. It may be
more bother and more work, but I believe building an office culture based on fairness, trust
and integrity is the way to go. Employee attitudes are based on job satisfaction, which
simply put means “what is so good about this job?” Just as any smart business person cares
about his customers’ wants and needs, he should also care about his employees’ wants and needs.
See things from their point of view.
I would approach a problem like the one described above by meeting with the people involved in a
private setting, and describing the nature of the problem without finding blame. Accept some
blame yourself for not having anticipated the issue. I would see the issue from both sides in
a calming, sensitive and respectful manner. This is a time for diplomacy. I would propose a
solution that would bridge the two sides and resolve the immediate problem. Ask both sides to
give a little and to put aside their differences. I would not worry if there was a cost to the
practice involved this time, but I would develop a written policy for the future based on what’s
best for the practice and the owner’s vision. If possible, I would seek staff input as I develop
Once a policy is in place, I work hard to make it fair to all. Employees understand the need for
rules and limits, but they expect fairness in the way policies are administered, and they watch it
closely. Sometimes you must deny a request simply because it would not be fair to other employees.
In such cases, I cite the fairness issue and hold firm.
Other uniform issues
There are many other issues involving uniforms and dress code. Should the practice pay for uniforms
in the first place? If so, how often should they be replaced? Should certain staff members, such as
the office manager or an optician who needs a high-fashion image, be allowed to wear street clothes?
What if this causes unrest among co-workers? Should the dress code for male and female employees be
different? What if the costs are different? Do lab technicians need to wear a uniform? How do you
handle employees who need extreme plus sizes which are not available in the desired style? How do you
get all employees to agree on a style? We’ll tackle these challenges next week.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management