When Warren Walker first got into the uniform business more than 20 years ago, he thought it was a “rotten idea” for employers to demand employees wear them.
But, over the last two decades, he has learned something: Many employees actually like uniforms.
“There’s no second-guessing about what to wear in the morning,” says Walker, manager of major accounts at ImageWear, a division of retailer Mark’s.
There are plenty of other reasons too. Uniforms — done well — can foster a sense of team spirit and equality among employees, he says.
“Uniforms are good when it comes to removing income and class distinction,” he says. “So there’s not one person with Gucci and another with Walmart.”
From an employer standpoint, a uniform is also a good way to solidify the company brand and attitude, while making employees distinguishable from customers, according to Walker.
“You want to know who the employee is and who the customer is when you walk into a place,” he says.
Liam Dando, president of Blue Riband Uniforms in Brossard, Que., says uniforms also reflect professionalism and make a strong first impression.
“Customers take less than 30 seconds to form an opinion of the service and the business, so image is important,” he says. “Since most uniforms are easy care, it ensures that everyone looks impeccable.”
Getting it right
But employers should be cautious when introducing uniforms for the first time, says Yvonne Thompson, president of Change Innovators, a Winnipeg-based HR consulting firm.
“The purpose has to be understood. What’s driving the initiative?” she says. “If it’s because employees are not dressing well, that’s wrong because it’s punitive.”
Research has shown employees are more likely to be engaged when they feel a strong emotional and intellectual connection to their work, says Thompson. So if an organization already has a strong, community-focused attitude where there are opportunities to be challenged and creative, uniforms may actually enhance the workplace culture, she says.
But in an environment where there is less transparency, respect or trust, a uniform can strip people of their identities.
“Fundamentally, it’s about how people are treated at work and the opportunities they have to stretch themselves,” says Thompson, adding uniforms will not resolve engagement issues on their own.
Introducing a uniform at an event will foster a positive connection for employees, she says. For example, if a team is working on a project together, it might be useful to introduce a company shirt on the last day.
“It can enhance engagement for that team,” she says. “It’s a memory, a sign of their solidarity.”
Giving employees even one simple piece — such as a T-shirt, warm-up jacket or dress shirt bearing a company logo — can have a big impact, particularly if it occurs at a team-building event, says Dando.
Regardless of how uniforms are introduced, there must be employee involvement in the design and selection.
“Don’t think about the price alone,” says Dando. “When we talk to our clients, and they often have their staff involved in the uniform selection process, there are two things that employees look for: They want it to look good and feel comfortable.”
This could mean cool, moisture-wicking fabric for employees in a fast-food restaurant or shirts with ample room in the sleeves for employees in a manufacturing plant doing repetitive motions.
Uniforms should also be easy to care for, such as a polyester-cotton mix for blouses and shirts, and a polyester-wool mix for suiting, says Dando, who also recommends a minimum of three tops per person so there’s one being worn, one ready to wear and one in the wash.
Design is key to making something employees want to wear, which is why Walker’s firm looks to the fashion world for guidance. Employers should also look at the demographic of their customers, he says. If they’re young and hip, that should be reflected in the uniforms. If they are older and more conservative, it might be a good idea to tone down the wild colours or more tightly fitted shirts.
“You don’t want employees to wear something where they have to hide in the bathroom to put it on or take it off at work,” he says. “You want something they’ll want to wear on the bus to get there.”
To achieve that, it’s important to consider body types, though it can be a challenge to find something that looks good on everyone, whether they wear XXS or XXL, he says. Shirts and pants should also be tailored to suit each gender, says Walker, who cringes every time an employer says “just make it unisex.”
“What it really means then is a man’s shirt,” he says. “Women don’t want to wear a boxy shirt that’s too big.”
Nor do employees want to be seen as a human advertisement, says Vanessa Mian, national people resources consultant at McDonald’s Canada.
“Employees want to feel comfortable and look professional in their uniform, but they’ve also told us they do not want to look like walking billboards,” she says. “So it’s important to use subtle branding on the uniform.”
McDonald’s introduced a new look at the Olympic Games, inspired by the television series Mad Men. Aside from the hip design, the uniforms are also made with eco-friendly and recycled fabrics — something employees have come to expect from McDonald’s, says Mian.
Uniforms can be quite devoid of most branding and still be distinguishable, says Walker. A client recently opted to choose a standard golf shirt from the Mark’s line but added a lanyard bearing the company name and logo that holds an employee’s ID badge, business cards and pens.
Many uniform providers, including Blue Riband and ImageWear, also offer custom uniforms to accommodate employees with disabilities or with cultural customs that must be observed, such as matching headscarves or extra-long skirts.
Danielle Harder is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.
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