Avoid personnel problems by putting a dress code policy in place

January 1, 2010

With all of the talk about the government's EMR stimulus package, new CPT codes, and the impact of the turbulent economy, you wouldn't pick dress codes as a big concern for medical practices. But as the newest generation entering the work force starts filling positions at your dermatology practice, it won't be long before you, too, may need to establish - or update - your practice's dress code.

Key Points

The Millennial Generation - those born between 1977 and 1998 - are more prone to display body art, such as tattoos and piercings, than previous generations. While these artful expressions are beautiful to some, they may not be for you - or for your patients. Add in the more familiar personnel challenges related to proper work attire, strong perfume, body odor and hairstyles, and you'll see why it pays to have a dress code in place before your new employee shows up with pink hair and a silver nose piercing.

Perhaps the new generation of workers hasn't presented any such challenges to your dermatology practice. Consider yourself lucky ... for now.

Portraying a professional image is important for your practice to stay competitive in these turbulent times. Patients will be impressed if they see professionalism, in addition to receiving courteous and quick service.

To create a successful image, many dermatology practices establish clear and consistent dress standards through a uniform that all employees are required to wear. Many employees like uniforms because they take the guesswork out of what to wear to work. If uniforms are subsidized, employees like them even better, because they can divert spending on work wear into buying necessities for their families.

To get started on your dress code, address the following:
1. Clothing: Establish a uniform. Consider purchasing a full set of uniforms (at least five are recommended) for every employee. Alternately, provide a uniform allowance that will reimburse employees for between 50 percent and 100 percent of their costs. To maintain quality, narrow the options to a line of recommended wear from a catalog, Web site or local work uniform store.
To maintain a consistent look, give employees a limited set of options - styles and colors - from which to choose. Select classy-but-stylish patterns in a tasteful, soothing color palette. If you don't have a uniform now, get workers involved by asking them to vote for the finalists.
2. Presentation: Once you've made the decision about clothing, address the other important issues around professional attire. Make it clear to workers that their work clothing must be clean, neat and in good condition. You might even define what you mean by "good condition," such as stating, "Uniforms that are torn, stained, soiled, excessively wrinkled or have buttons missing are not acceptable." The policy should also address the proper wearing of name tags.
3. Footwear: Be specific about what you want - it's a safety issue as well as an appearance issue. Many practices insist that staff wear shoes (not sandals) that are closed-toe, medium- or low-heeled, with nonslip soles. Again, making some recommendations about style and, perhaps, where to purchase footwear can avoid problems.
4. Personal hygiene and appearance: Your dress code policy also should advise employees to maintain clean personal hygiene and to refrain from wearing perfume. Instead of trying to detail the dos and don'ts of appearance, state in the policy that hairstyles, hair color, fingernails and cosmetics must maintain the practice's professional image. Many employee handbooks require hair to be clean, neatly trimmed and contained so that it does not come in contact with patients, and nails to be clean, well-manicured and moderate in length.
5. Jewelry: Get detailed about jewelry by stating that it must be small and simple, cannot obstruct work, and may be visible on the ear only (which eliminates facial jewelry and piercings such as those on the nose, eyebrow, lip, etc.). Require that any tattoos be covered at all times while on duty.

No doubt you've seen many other clothing, hair and jewelry issues that I haven't covered here. It would be impossible to keep up with every fad emerging from today's popular culture. The goal of your policy should be to establish a standard of professional appearance expectations. Due to the potential implications of a dress code on some religious and cultural issues, be sure to have an attorney familiar with labor issues review your policy before you put it into the employee handbook.

Once you've updated your dermatology practice's dress code, advise staff of the policies. Hold an open forum to answer questions and clear up any misconceptions.

Without a written code, your dermatology practice has three choices: task your already busy practice manager with monitoring each employee's outfits, allow dress code enforcement to seem arbitrary - thus, unfair - to employees, or put up with whatever walks in the door every day.

Don't let the issue of proper attire and appearance become a source of confusion or dissent in your practice. Put your dress code policy in writing. If your current written code doesn't address tattoos, tooth jewelry and facial piercings, maybe it's time for an update.

Elizabeth Woodcock is the principal of Woodcock & Associates and a speaker and writer specializing in practice management. Visit her Web site at http://www.elizabethwoodcock.com/.