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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

7.27.99  
A Salute to the Corporate Uniform
With a serious dress code, even casual clothes can boost your company's image

Q: My company is thinking about ordering uniforms for our staff and administration. Is this a good idea? Where can we find vendors? --K.K., Laguna Niguel, CA

A: Dressing employees in uniforms, typically khaki pants and a polo shirt with the company logo on it, is a fast-growing trend that has grown out of the early-'90s policy of "casual dress day." Giving the staff one day a week or month to come to work in short-sleeved shirts and casual pants started as a perk designed to encourage team spirit and a more friendly atmosphere at work.

Unfortunately, casual day became casual everyday at many workplaces that lacked a well-defined dress code. "One person's casual is another person's unkempt," says Mary Lou Andre, president of Organization by Design, a Needham (Mass.) corporate-image consulting firm. "People are using casual as an excuse to dress sloppily or provocatively, with some young female employees taking their cues from 'Ally McBeal.' We've gotten several calls recently from companies that want to talk about going with uniforms."

GM's Saturn car dealerships, with everyone from top executives to technicians on a first-name basis and garbed in white company shirts and dark pants, started the trend toward casual company uniforms, says Victoria Seitz, a fashion consultant, author, and marketing professor from San Bernardino, Calif. "Companies want to communicate instant credibility by putting their employees in matching clothing. It's also a way to build brand image, like the mustard jacket at Century 21 or the black-and-white stripes at Foot Locker," she says.

Done right, company uniforms can publicize your logo and help your employees represent the company positively. A uniform makes it a lot easier for the customer to pick out a company rep. For employees, there's no agonizing about what to wear to work, and their clothing costs usually fall, though most companies pass along the cost of uniforms to the employees, Seitz says. But don't just pass out the company T-shirts and slacks and then stop there. "You have to follow up with policies about how the uniform will be worn, such as requiring appropriate belts, shoes, socks, hairstyles, and makeup. If your employees don't keep the uniform clean and pressed, or their posture is poor, or they're not making eye contact with the customers, then they'll be killing the opportunity to communicate credibility with the uniforms," Seitz says.

It's not easy to find uniforms that look good on employees of different ages and sizes, Andre says. "Make sure you've got plus sizes and different cuts for women and men. A young woman who's a size four wearing a men's cut denim shirt will be drowning in it -- and she'll be drowning your company logo, too," she says. And if the uniforms don't fit right or aren't attractive, employees will resent wearing them. Many clothing companies specialize in corporate and industrial uniforms, and most require a minimum order, Seitz says. A small company that needs only a dozen uniforms will probably have to go to a retail outlet to have the clothing made.

For more information, Andre's Web site, www.dressingwell.com, offers articles on corporate and retail image, wardrobe tips, and a fashion E-mail newsletter.

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