Optometric Management Tip # 184   -   Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Staff Uniforms

Staff dress code policy is one of those areas of practice management where there is not a single right or wrong way to do things. But that doesnít mean itís not important or unworthy of due consideration. The appearance of your staff speaks volumes to your patients. Uniforms can change the entire perception of your practice Ė for better or for worse. Patients canít possibly judge you on the technical aspects of eye care, so they observe other intangibles very closely and draw sweeping conclusions from those.

Iíll approach this weekís column in a question and answer format.

Should the practice provide uniforms?

Yes. I think there are far more advantages than disadvantages in making uniforms a paid employment benefit. Here is why I do it in my practice: What style uniform is best?

This is an aspect without a single right answer. Personal preference and taste play a big role. The ownerís vision and the input of the staff are both important considerations. Some practices are very clinical and medical; some are more retail. Some practices choose scrubs, others go for polo shirts and slacks, others like colorful printed smocks and still others choose street clothes and lab coats. They all can be good. Iíve tried many different styles in my practice, and changing it around has benefits, too.

How often should uniforms be replaced?

It depends on how many sets are in use and how durable they are. My female staff members currently have six different colored crew neck, short-sleeved tops, which are rotated so everyone wears the same color on the same day of the week. Each staff member also has a lab coat with the practice name embroidered and two pairs of uniform pants. Wearing the lab coat is optional and is often dictated by oneís personal need to be warmer or cooler. We replace all these uniform items twice per year. Here in northern Indiana we switch to long-sleeved tops in the winter season. Uniforms take a beating with frequent washings and they simply wear out. We try to find items with some polyester blended with cotton because it wears well and prevents wrinkles. Clothing for male staff is discussed below.

Should some staff wear different clothes?

Yes, possibly. Doctors often wear different clothing from the rest of the staff, and that choice is definitely one of personal preference. A dress code is still a good idea so all doctors present a consistent and professional image.

Any job in the optometric office can be held by a male or female, so some thought should be given to masculine and feminine styles, as needed. Lab coats over street clothes works for both genders and polo shirts are also considered unisex.

Opticians who work primarily in eyewear selection and fitting (sales) may perform better if they wear fashionable street clothes instead of a basic clinic smock. Looking the part of a fashion advisor can add credibility as the optician advises the patient on frame shape, style, and color, as well as second pairs and sunglasses. I employ a male optician who wears a dress suit and tie every day and he is very successful.

Lab technicians who exclusively make glasses could be considered in a different uniform class, since they donít work with patients Ė or do they? Many lab techs are called upon to pitch in with dispensing duties when the office hits a busy period. And many labs today have a large viewing window for the public to see in, so appearance still counts. Another aspect of that job, however, is that it can expose the employee to lens waste, dirty water, tint, polish and machine maintenance, so durable work clothes are practical. I employ a male lab technician who wears his own casual street clothes and we supply a lab coat for him to put on to protect his clothing and to give him a professional appearance on the rare occasions that he works with patients.

You may want to give a special cash allowance to those employees who are not part of the standard uniform purchase. This allows them the same benefit as their co-workers and that amount can be applied to their purchases of street clothes. Keep in mind that the whole idea of a uniform is to have everyone look like a team, and if most employees are an exception, the uniformity is lost.

How can we get all staff members to agree on the uniform?

I donít think you can. There will always be some aspect of any uniform that is not to someoneís liking, but hopefully the complaints will be minor. The important thing is to listen to staff input and try to find some common ground. Itís not easy.

Miscellaneous uniform tips
Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management