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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor July 20, 2005 - Tip #183 
 Contact Dr. Gailmard | Subscribe | Archives | Print this issue Visit: optometricmanagement.com 
Employees' Shoes and Office Morale

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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.

Typical scenario

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 employees.

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.

Management style

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 the policy.

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,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.

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