By Diane Palombi, OD
March 4, 2015
To wear uniforms or not to wear uniforms, that is the question many employers face, both for themselves and for their staff. I have been on both sides of the fence, both as an employer and employee. There are benefits to both requiring employees to wear uniforms and allowing them to go without.
In making adecision on this issue, consider the strong signal that uniforms send to patients, and also how uniforms affect how employees see themselves within the office culture.Then think about how you see your practice identity and theimage you want to project.
In my early years, when I was an employee at LensCrafters, my employer insisted that the technicians wear either scrubs or nursing uniforms. The doctor had to wear either a clinic jacket or lab coat. We were also provided with name tags. The logic behind this was that by wearing uniforms, the many patients who visited us every day could easily identify who was the doctor and who was staff.
There was one little problem. This was the 1980s, when women doctors were not as common as they are today. A male technician in scrubs was often assumed to be the doctor.
I was not a big fan of the clinic coat, except for the large pockets in which I stowed my occluders, penlights, pens and PD sticks. These items would often walk off if left on an exam desk. The jacket occasionally saved my clothes from being stained by fluorescein. Unfortunately, the clinic coat was an extra layer of clothing, so I typically was warmer than the staff, making it hard for us to agree on a comfortable thermostat setting for everyone. Another problem I had with the clinic coat was that I wanted to come off as personable, and the jacket screamed that I was the doctor. Of course I was, but I wanted to seem more approachable. I did not want my patients to see me as an intimidating authority figure. There was one exception at LensCrafters to wearing the clinic jacket. We were allowed to take it off to examine young children so they would not be afraid that we were a doctor who would give them a vaccination.
Looking back, it was probably a good thing that these rules were implemented. Our LensCrafters location was large with many employees. We also had different departments, which included the doctor’s office, optical and lab. Everyone had a jacket or uniform, even the lab employees. A person who came into our LensCrafters could tell the difference between an employee and another customer. I surveyed my friends about this matter. The majority felt that in a small optometric practice with just a few employees, wearing a uniform wasn’t necessary. However, in a large practice, or optical chain store environment, the uniform was extremely helpful.
When I opened my private practice, the clinic jacket stayed home. I was the only doctor. When I entered the exam room, I made it a point to immediately introduce myself to new patients. That seemed sufficient.
I let my staff decide on their own office attire. I only had a few employees, so my patients got to know them pretty quickly. My turnover rate was low, so employees worked for me for many years. My patients did not see a new face every time they visited my office, reducing the need for name tags. Some employees wore white coats or scrubs by choice, but the majority wore street clothes. I had one employee who did both. Typically, the employees who wore uniforms had them from previous employers.
Uniforms are an expense either to the provider or the employee, but usually to the employee. On the other hand, it does save wear and tear on the employee’s own clothing. Uniforms are easy due to the fact that you do not have to think about what to wear to work every day. The employee loses their individuality, but that is not always a bad thing (depending on the employee’s personal style!). An employer does not want to worry about their practice’s image degraded by an employee who likes to wear inappropriate clothing to work.
It’s hard to reprimand an employee for their appearance. By having a uniform policy in place, this potential problem is alleviated. Uniforms can be easier to maintain since they are machine washable. Dress clothing can be dry clean only, so an employee who wears a uniform usually doesn’t have to go through the effort and expense of maintaining their work clothes. Dirty, torn and smelly clothing on an employee does not project the image that you want for your practice, and an employee who wears dated clothing can suggest a practice that is also dated.
Every practice is different. You have your own unique image that you want to project to patients. It is a matter of deciding whether you want the structured look of the uniform or something less restrictive. Fortunately, there is no right or wrong decision. You just have to figure out what is right for you–and your patients.
Do you require your staff to wear a uniform (scrubs, white jacket, etc.)? Why do or don’t you do this, and what can you recommend to other practices struggling with this decision?
Diane Palombi, OD, now-retired, was owner of Palombi Vision Center in Wentzville, Mo. To contact her: email@example.com