Riley’s Freight Forwarding and Warehousing had started from humble beginnings 20 years ago in a small, shared warehouse, and there were still times when John Riley found it hard to believe just how successful the company had become.
Hard work had paid off, and the company had grown steadily and now employed 40 full-timers: drivers, administration staff, warehouse and sales staff. Most of them had been with the company for five years or longer.
The last 12 months had been especially successful. Business was flourishing. John and his sales staff had secured several big warehousing and daily delivery contracts with corporations. This had made it necessary to modernise by moving into a larger warehouse and offices and implementing new technology to ensure that customer needs were met.
John was satisfied with the smooth transition to the new premises and was impressed by the way his staff had accepted the new systems and technology that they were now required to use. But a comment made by his sales manager, Mark Johnson, kept niggling him:
“Business is good, John, but I think several areas can still improve, and one of them is our company identity.”
This comment had stayed with John and he began to take note of the way his staff dressed for work. Now that his attention was drawn to it, John was a bit embarrassed that he had never really noticed the T-shirts with inappropriate slogans, the long straggly hair and the casual dress standards of his employees. He started to question how dress standards might negatively affect his company’s identity and even its success.
What was needed was to ensure that his company presented a professional image at all times. John decided that the simplest way was to implement a policy on uniforms and grooming.
He set up a meeting with Mark, and they decided that the grooming policy should be implemented immediately and the uniforms policy should be implemented as soon as a uniform could be designed and produced.
After the meeting, John asked his secretary to organise a memo to all staff, advising them of the new policies, and to find him the phone numbers and details of some manufacturers of uniforms.
The next day, John had a visit from Greg Stevens, one of his sales staff and a long-term friend.
“John, I have just heard about this new uniform policy that you want to put in place,” Greg said as he took a seat opposite John.
“Right, what do you mean?” John queried cautiously.
“Well, mate, the admin and sales staff have been talking about it all morning; they’re not happy. As your employee and close friend, I thought I should let you know.”
Greg went on to explain that the grievances were that staff were not involved in the decision-making process about whether a uniform was needed, what it should be, who should pay for it, and that some staff did not want to wear an uncomfortable uniform, as they never dealt with customers or the public.
John was surprised; he had not even considered that they might be unhappy to wear a uniform, preferring instead to ruin their own clothes at work. Realising his naivety, he thanked Greg for being candid with him and told him that he appreciated that the staff might have some concerns. He then added that he had concerns about the identity of the company now that business was growing and he felt that, because they were servicing corporate clientele, the company now had to portray a more professional image. John sensed that the response he gave Greg was not satisfactory and that it would make its way back to the administration and sales staff.
To clear his head, John decided to catch up with his warehouse manager, Ted Smith, to see how the daily deliveries were running. As he wandered through the warehouse towards Ted’s office, he was approached by Charlie McDermott, one of the drivers and the Transport Workers Union representative at the company.
“So, we all have to fork out for expensive uniforms now, do we?” Charlie demanded.
“Well, I don’t now about expensive, Charlie, that’s being a bit drastic isn’t it?” John retorted. “I would have thought your guys would have been happy not to wreck their own clothes at work.”
“I just hope you have got some sort of subsidy scheme to help us out. Some of these guys have a mortgage and a couple of kids. They can’t afford to spend extra money on uniforms.” Charlie replied.
“The precise details have not been worked out yet, Charlie, but you will be the first to know them,” John said. “We’re serious about the grooming policy, too. We expect staff members to be clean-shaven or with moustaches and beards trimmed and long hair tied back.”
“Look John, if you start getting heavy with these guys, I can’t guarantee there won’t be trouble.” Charlie said.
“What do you mean by that?” John said angrily.
“Nothing. I am just warning you not to try and force this uniform and grooming issue through without working with the guys.” said Charlie as he walked off towards his van.
John was stunned that the decision to set a dress standard had created such a stir. He wondered whether he should have approached the situation differently.
Ted looked up from his computer and said: “You look like you’re having a good day: let me guess, this memo about the uniform and grooming policy has stirred up a hornets nest?”
“Why, what have you heard Ted?” John asked worriedly.
“As soon as my boys saw that memo, I had two of them in here asking me if it was serious and kicking up a stink about it costing too much and that they never had to wear a uniform before, so why do they have to start now.” Ted replied. “And if I’ve heard correctly, it looks like Charlie and his boys have got a problem with it as well, John.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe it,” John said as he sat down. “Mark and I discussed it yesterday and thought that it was a great way to build the company’s identity and brand. We thought the staff would agree that we had to portray a more professional image and would respond well.”
“I think you should have thought about it for a bit longer, John.” said Ted.
“I personally think it’s a good idea, but you can’t expect these guys to agree to a sudden change, particularly when there doesn’t seem to have a been a problem in the past. Some of these guys have been working for you for 10 years and are set in their ways. Surely, you didn’t just expect it to happen without a challenge?”
The next morning, as John walked through the warehouse he realised that, if anything, the drivers and warehouse staff seem to be dressed worse than the day before. As he passed his secretary on his way to his office, she informed him that Murray O Connor from the Transport Workers Union had called to arrange a meeting about his uniform and grooming policy. John sighed. All the hopes he had for his staff to accept the new grooming policy were well and truly gone.
Where had he gone wrong? It seemed that all he had managed to do was create a lot of concern among his employees and unwanted animosity towards senior management.
Did the company implement the new policies on uniform and grooming in the best possible way? What suggestions would you make to improve the situation and ensure a “win-win”?
Proposed solution #1
Elspeth Sharp, director of E. Sharp & Associates, is a human-resources professional with extensive experience in career transition, management training, graduate recruitment, coaching and mentoring. Elspeth held senior management positions in the banking industry before opening her own consultancy in 1993.
John Riley did not implement these policies in the best possible way. His reasons may be valid, but the approach he took largely caused the negative reaction by staff and union.
John’s biggest mistake was to make the decision and announcement without consulting his managers, staff and union representatives. No one felt that they had any ownership of the decision. Furthermore, John did not give any consideration to whether staff would feel he was personally insulting them and their manner of dress and grooming. Up to this time, it had been acceptable.
He did not seem to take into account the cost of uniforms or who was to pay for them.
The first recommendation I would make would be to put the decision and implementation of the uniform and grooming policies on hold.
For John to achieve a policy that staff understand and accept, he needs to call a meeting for all staff, management and union representatives and announce that the policy is on hold, outline the reasons that led to his initial decision, and allow staff and union to express their views and concerns.
He should talk about the growth of the business, particularly in the corporate sector, his wish to ensure that the company has a professional image in the market to improve its identity, and clearly express what he wants to achieve by the uniform and grooming policy. An open and free discussion from all parties should be encouraged.
Staff and union should be made aware that if there are any safety issues (for example, the warehouse staff and drivers may need to wear protective clothing: safety vests, steel-capped boots), management may have to make a decision without consultation if they are to comply with occupational health and safety regulations.
A committee of two or three key people should then be formed to investigate various issues, including:
- Who should wear them?
- Are all staff to have the same uniform?
- Who pays?
- Are there any safety issues?
The committee should take its recommendations to John and the management team for discussion and consideration, and John would then make a final decision in line with budgetary constraints.
An implementation timetable should then be developed to give staff time to adjust to the change and for the uniforms to be selected and delivered. It may be decided to introduce the policy progressively, commencing with a pilot of just some staff so as to gain feedback.
A policy on uniforms and grooming should be written and included in the company’s human resources policy and procedures manual. It should include a way of monitoring compliance and actions to be taken if compliance is not maintained. These should be developed with the help of the committee.
John and his management team must monitor the policy and provide regular feedback to staff on their appearance and pass on any comments from customers. Changes in behavior need to be reinforced to sustain the change.
While staff are considering the uniform policy, John could conduct a customer survey to gain feedback on how customers view staff, service, business integrity, image, etc.
The process of implementing a new policy may vary across organisations, but consultation with the staff and unions that will be affected needs to occur from the beginning to build ownership. But, the final decision rests with management.
Proposed solution #2
Megan Dwyer is a human-resources manager with a large health-care organisation
that recently restructured its business. As part of this “21st-century vision” project, she was responsible for implementing a new policy on uniforms as well as a variety of change-management activities.
His article strikes several chords with me. I work for a large health-care provider at which for many years the front-counter staff the nurses, doctors and reception people had to wear a uniform. However, the rest of us, who worked behind the scenes in administrative, technical or manual jobs, were not governed by any code more binding than a “look professional” instruction.
Then, just as at Riley’s Freight, a decision was made to introduce corporate uniforms for all staff, regardless of whether they had contact with the public or not. The reasoning behind the decision was two-fold. First, it was to improve corporate identity. After all, staff in uniform are walking billboards for the company. The second reason was to improve corporate morale and to make the workforce feel like one big happy family.
Grooming was not as big an issue for us as, being in the health-care business, we had fairly stringent guidelines covering things such as long hair and beards. These restrictions were not only caused by a need for employees to look professional, but also by the workplace health and safety guidelines and the strictures of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
John and his team might have thought that the new policies were reasonable, but he missed one vital step that our management did not: he failed to consult staff. By coming up with the policy in a meeting between two people, John doomed the project from the start. People often do not react well to change, especially sudden change without a reasoned explanation or the opportunity to be involved in the decision. Also aggravating the issue is the fact that company has just endured big changes with the transition to new premises and the introduction of new technology.
When we introduced the new policy on uniforms, staff members were involved at every step. We were shown three sample designs and were asked to vote on them. Uniform “champions” were appointed from each business unit, who took staff feedback to monthly management meetings. This consultation process delayed the implementation of the policy, but it ensured that there were no complaints from staff.
Unlike John, who alone made the decision, implemented the policy, and alone copped the flak, we all made the decision, copped the flak and implemented the decision.
So, what can he do to prevent this becoming an industrial issue? The first step is to regain the confidence of staff by involving them in the process. He should not abandon the uniform and grooming policy, but should delay its introduction to allow for a more controlled, consultative process. What he needs to do is explain why the changes are important, from a company image angle and a workplace health and safety or similar staff-related angle.
At the same time, it sounds as though the company could do with a bit of bonding. It should take the time to reassure staff that the wave of changes is for the company’s benefit.
Employees should be proud to come to work and should be inspired to present themselves professionally as part of their work ethic. But, work ethic, pride and staff commitment cannot be created by a memo. John needs to go back to basics. The policy is a good idea and it does seem to be needed. However, it should have been implemented as a co-ordinated part of the recent changes rather than as an afterthought.
By delaying the implementation and taking the time to consult staff, John will find that the introduction of a policy on uniforms runs more smoothly. He will also find that staff might have some good ideas on uniform restrictions that he has not considered.