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Does your medical practice have a uniform for a dress code?

Guest blog by Elizabeth W. Woodcock, MBA, FACMPE, CPC, healthcare speaker and co-author of Operating Policies & Procedures Manual for Medical Practices, 4th Edition

Does your medical practice have a written policy for employee professional appearance? If so, have you recently revisited that policy?

Having a professional image is important for your medical practice to stay competitive. If patients see professionalism, in addition to receiving courteous treatment and quick service, they will be impressed.

You may think that setting guidelines for professional appearance is more difficult today than in years past, but women's skirt lengths and men's long hair used to challenge human resources managers. Now it's body piercing, tattoos and skimpy clothing.

Whether it's the 1970s or the 2010s, these issues have a common source – people declaring themselves as individuals or maybe not knowing what's considered "professional." Either way, today's medical practice administrators and human resources managers must know where to draw the line so the group practice projects a competent, professional image.

It isn't easy to address a workforce that comes from multiple generations, backgrounds and beliefs. This is where a written policy (and the book Operating Policies & Procedures Manual for Medical Practices, 4th Edition) can help.

Instead of "dress code," think "professional appearance."

Stress in your written policy, and in its enforcement, that the policy is for the image your practice wants to project to its patients and the community.

While your policy may need to have a few very obvious examples of what you consider unprofessional (tank tops, hooded sweatshirts, etc.) don't get too detailed. Fashion trends change too quickly for you to include every possible contingency. Who could have predicted surgically implanted horns or other 3D body art? Or the "urban kilt" for men? (Although I'm OK with that one personally, some long-time patients of the practice might not be able to adjust.)

In addition to becoming dated almost overnight, an overly detailed dress policy leads employees to get lost in the details instead of focusing on the "professional presentation" concept.

Explicitly state dress code parameters.

Your professional appearance policy should also address other important details of how you want employees to present themselves, such as:

  • Clothes must be clean, neat and in good condition without tears or obvious stains.
  • Employees must maintain clean personal hygiene, address body odors and avoid strong perfumes.
  • Hair must be clean, neatly trimmed and contained in such a manner that it does not come in contact with patients.
  • Hairstyles, hair color and cosmetics should project the practice's professional image.
  • Jewelry should be small and simple. For example, earrings may be visible on the ear only and cannot obstruct work.

And if you don't want staff tattoos or body piercings visible at work, say so in your policy.

Consider uniforms.

Many physician practices are moving toward uniforms because they solve a number of problems. Some employees may have difficulty figuring out what to wear to work. Subsidized uniforms also can alleviate some of the financial pressure employees (especially those on the lower end of the pay scale or those who are sole breadwinners for their families) might feel as they attempt to comply with your dress code.

If you go the uniform route, consider these ideas:

  • Establish a standard look by purchasing a full set of uniforms for each employee (at least five days worth is recommended).
  • Buy shirts, scarves or other complementary gear and guide employees on how to mix and match.
  • Extend a subsidy or discount for a line of dress you recommend from a Web site and allow employees to choose from a small menu of styles.
  • Choose classy but stylish patterns. A soothing and stylish color palette looks more professional than the garish patterns and colors I see in some medical uniform catalogs.
  • When introducing uniforms, make it fun by asking staff to vote on the three or four styles you've selected as finalists.

Restrictions on appropriate dress, jewelry and other matters of appearance can feel like an infringement on religious and cultural freedom to some. Make sure an attorney familiar with labor issues reviews your policy before you publish it.

Simply asking everyone to apply their own "good taste" leaves your practice's image in the community to chance. You don't have the time to scrutinize each employee's choice of clothing. Take the direct route to clarity and consistency by writing a concise professional appearance policy.

Download a sample dress code policy, excerpted from the Operating Policies & Procedures Manual for Medical Practices, 4th Edition book.

What policies do you have in place? Share them in the comments.

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