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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor July 27, 2005 - Tip #184 
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Staff Uniforms

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Additional Information

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 doesn't mean it's 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 - for better or for worse. Patients can't possibly judge you on the technical aspects of eye care, so they observe other intangibles very closely and draw sweeping conclusions from those.

I'll approach this week's 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:
  • It gives me some control over the appearance of my staff. Patients are impressed when the entire staff is wearing matching colors and styles. We look like a team.
  • When the practice provides uniforms, we prevent the use of clothing that might be poor quality or dingy, stained, and worn. When uniforms are a personal expense, there is a fine line when clothing is unacceptable and it's a difficult topic to broach.
  • Employees appreciate the pre-tax fringe benefit. Uniforms are a significant personal expense to an employee, but it's affordable to the practice as a business expense.
  • Employees have better attitudes when they wear nice uniforms. When people look good, they feel good. A sharp professional appearance creates confidence.
What style uniform is best?

This is an aspect without a single right answer. Personal preference and taste play a big role. The owner's 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. I've 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 one's 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 don't work with patients - 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 don't think you can. There will always be some aspect of any uniform that is not to someone's liking, but hopefully the complaints will be minor. The important thing is to listen to staff input and try to find some common ground. It's not easy.

Miscellaneous uniform tips
  • We use a local uniform shop for items like lab coats and pants, but we also order from the JC Penny catalog (the standard merchandise book). This allows us to get excellent pricing, color and styles for the shirts. All items come via UPS and are easily returned by UPS, no questions asked.
  • After we select a style, we order one item so we can wash it and check for all kinds of issues, such as shrinkage, wrinkling, see-through material, too low cut, or any other problem. Staff members can also try it on for size estimates. If it looks good, we place the big order.
  • Ask early in the process if the item has a large stock in all colors. If some are backordered, we move on and pick a new style.
  • See if the item you like comes in a large range of sizes, from very small to extra-plus.
  • Buy an extra set of uniforms in an average size to keep on hand. This can be very handy with new staff or for replacement of a damaged item in the middle of a season.
  • We require all uniforms to be returned at the end of employment, along with the office key. These uniforms are laundered and saved for emergency use. While we would always prefer to provide new uniforms, the availability of a perfect match to our current set has come in very handy on many occasions. It has allowed us to get by with a new employee for a short time until new uniforms are ordered for all.
  • Nametags are a great addition to the uniform. Patients like to see the name of the person they are working with, and the job title is impressive. I like nametags for both doctors and staff. The magnetic ones work very well.

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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