The evolution of the staff uniform
HR magazine, July 29, 2008
Several companies have recently revamped their staff uniforms to keep them up-to-date and in-keeping with what employees want to wear. But have they got it right? Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation, passes judgment on some of the most high-profile uniformed companies
McDonald's has always tried to adapt its uniform to the era. In the late 1970s, it introduced kick flares and chocolate brown tones which suited the swinging decade. In the 1980s, it changed the uniform to focus on primary colours and pin stripes, in line with the tailored feel of the power-suit boom. In the two decades that followed, the fast food brand tried to bring in a softer look to distance itself from the 1980s power-look. In April this year the fast food chain unveiled its latest look. It is designed by celebrity designer Bruce Oldfield, who has dressed the likes of the late Princess of Wales, Sienna Miller and Anjelica Huston. His brief was to create a contemporary look that fitted with McDonald's revamped, modernised retail outlets. Uniforms now incorporate black and mocha polo shirts, baseball caps, fashion scarves and aprons. Managers will stand out wearing black suits with white or cappuccino-coloured shirts.
The HR director's view: David Fairhurst, senior vice president, chief people officer, McDonald's Restaurants Northern Europe, says the uniforms are a "mark of respect" for the company's hardworking staff. "That's why we commissioned a celebrated designer. Our people are at the heart of our business and we want them to look great and feel great doing their job. Too many organisations underestimate the power and impact of a uniform and too many focus purely on the functionality of a uniform, failing to take account of the impact it can have on employee confidence and performance," he says. Fairhurst says he is confident the uniforms will boost the performance and confidence of staff. Feedback from uniform trials showed that more than two thirds of workers preferred the new style to the old one, he says.
Aziz says: "Red has always been regarded as a colour associated with vibrancy - it's also a little bit cheeky. It would appear McDonald's has gone full circle, bringing back the brown. Still, I suppose the new uniform won't show the grease marks so much."
Low-cost airline EasyJet has traditionally had a very casual approach to uniform. For instance, a decade ago cabin crew were identified simply by their bright orange polo shirts. When Mike Campbell, people director, joined the airline in 2005, cabin crew were dressed in T-shirt and slacks that were tight and very orange. He quickly realised that the uniform was having a negative impact on staff morale. "A lot of crew complained that they looked awful and that people didn't treat them with respect. They also said they didn't feel good in them," he says. Last year, Campbell instigated a competition to design a new uniform. He told staff they could change the uniform on three conditions: that it didn't cost more than the present one; it had to have some orange in it; and it had to be designed by a member of staff. He was astounded by the response: he received 240 designs. To whittle the list down, Campbell organised an online "vote off". The vote on the uniform actually proved more emotive than a vote running around the same time on pay: 470 workers voted on pay and 2,000 on the uniform change. The final three designs were mocked up and unveiled in a fashion show. The winner was announced nine months ago and it was introduced in October, overnight, for maximum impact.
THE HR director's view: "In the early days, we were a newcomer and the casual uniform reflected that we were different from other airlines. Then, after flotation, we were a bit like a brash teenager fighting against the establishment in our bright, in-your-face orange - screaming we're low-cost and proud of it. Now we're entering a third stage and a lot of crew wanted to keep these sentiments but also stress we're very professional in what we do. So the new uniform is smart and not brash but it's got tinges of orange; you still know it's EasyJet. "All designs gave the men ties. It was the complete antithesis of what we were expecting," says Campbell.
Aziz says: "The uniform used to make them look like check-out staff. So when the time comes to exert authority it is difficult. The EasyJet uniform traditionally made the wearer seem more of a 'trolley dolly' than someone who is an authoritative officer of the airline."