Is there anyone in Australia who hasn’t been required to wear a uniform at one time or another? Most of us have not-so-fond memories of school uniforms that were itchy, synthetic, shapeless, expensive, seemingly designed by an alien and all-round hideous. Along with the uniform came the compulsory additions like school bags, ties, regulation shoes and all the other bits that may have seemed so unnecessary. Looking back, the requirements may seem like overkill for a method of identifying a student from a particular school; however there are legitimate reasons why schools practise this.
For the more unfortunate among us, the first job may have meant more of the same – a uniform that was compulsory for everyone, no matter whether they were fat, thin, tall, short, or came out in a rash when forced to wear nylon or cheap polyester. No wonder we occasionally read about the occasional stoush between corporate hierarchy and their employees when the employees finally decide they have had enough.
Recently, Virgin Train workers in the UK threatened to strike over new uniforms that were too revealing and badly fitting. The union reported that that those workers who didn’t like their blouses would be given £20 to buy a bra. That was capped off by their boss, Richard Branson, posing for photos in full makeup and a personally tailored version of their uniform. Undoubtedly, the whole incident could have been handled a great deal more discreetly and sympathetically by Virgin Train.
So how do companies ensure that disagreements about uniform do not escalate to the point where the incident becomes an embarrassment to just about everyone? Communication is the key. When staff members are first appointed to a position, they should be made fully aware of the company dress code. Of course, if the uniform or dress code was originally chosen without reference to comfort or appearance, there are always going to be problems further down the line. Allowances must be made for cultural differences and other aspects that could have some bearing on the way the dress code is applied. It is counter-productive to be so strict that an aggrieved employee later bursts out publicly castigating the company for the way it handled a dress code disagreement.
Uniforms are generally compulsory for a reason, whether it be for safety, hygiene, identification or a manner of brand congruency, like a way of appearing more upmarket than the competition. If employees decide to embellish their uniform with extra jewellery and accessories or to alter the appearance of an item of clothing, the purpose of the uniform may well be negated. In these cases, offending staff should be handled tactfully and without causing friction in the working relationship. If employees have a genuine grievance about their uniform, they should expect to be heard with consideration.
Yes, uniform codes DO matter, even more so in a changing world. If you manage the Communications, Legal or Human Resources department of a company, ensure that you are fully cognisant of your policies. How do you or a colleague currently communicate your policy to new employees? How would they act if an incident arises? And, finally, how would they deal with any resulting untoward publicity? A seemingly trivial incident can have quite an impact on the company if the media decide to make it a cause célèbre. Just as well to be prepared!
What have been your experiences wearing uniforms?