By Cinda Cannon, September 03, 2012
Having a professional image is important for your medical practice to stay competitive. Keep in mind that your patients are taking their first impressions from their first 30 seconds inside your office. If patients see staff in professional attire, and of course receive courteous treatment and quick service, they will be impressed. If the dress code shouts, “we don’t care what we look like,” or “we’d rather be taking in the sun at the beach,” you won’t instill much confidence in your patients.
Instead of “dress code,” think “professional appearance.” You may think that having specific guidelines for professional appearance is more difficult today than in years past. Back then it was women’s skirt lengths and men’s long hair that provided challenges to human resource managers. Today it’s more about body piercing, tattoos, and trendy clothing.
Whether it’s about the 1970s, the 2000s, or now, these issues have a common ground. People declare themselves as individuals through their appearance, perhaps not knowing what’s considered “professional.” In any event in today’s medical practice, whether you are the physician, practice administrator, or human resource manager, you must know where to draw the line to ensure that your practice projects a competent, professional image at all times. [pagebreak]
Written policy a must
If you have a current written policy, the following are some areas you may want to review. If you don’t have a written policy, you should! These are some areas to be sure your written policy covers.
Always begin with stressing in your written policy, and in its enforcement, that the policy is for the image your practice wants to project to its patients and to the community.
While your policy may need to have a few obvious examples of what you consider unprofessional (tank tops, flip flops, etc.), don’t get too caught up in the details. Fashion trends change too quickly for you to include every possible contingency. Besides becoming dated almost overnight, an overly detailed policy can lead your employees to become lost in the details rather than focusing on the “professional presentation” concept that you want projected. [pagebreak]
Your professional appearance policy should address some specific areas of how you wish your employees to present themselves. You may wish to consider policies like:
- Clothes must be clean, neat, and in good condition without tears or stains.
- Appropriate shoes must be worn. (You can determine what you consider to be acceptable given your practice environment and an employee’s job — if the employee is in areas where scalpels are used, for instance, open-toed shoes may be a bad idea.)
- Employees must maintain clean personal hygiene, address body odors, and avoid overly strong perfumes, aftershave, and colognes.
- Hair needs to 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 always project the practice’s professional image.
- Jewelry should be small and simple and should not obstruct the employee’s work. [pagebreak]
If you don’t want staff tattoos or body piercings (other than ear piercings) to be visible at work, you need to say so in your policy.
If you don’t have a dress code (professional appearance policy), then you leave it to yourself as the physician or the manager to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. This can create the impression of unfairness in the eyes of your employees. Keep in mind that the issue normally evolves gradually over time so that you don’t notice it until you get complaints from patients. By this point your office might have already taken a serious image hit in the eyes of patients. This, on its own, can take a long time to repair and sometimes at the loss of patients. Is it worth the risk? I say no.
Uniforms or scrubs?
Many physicians’ practices today try to avoid all of this by having their employees wear scrubs, while others may steer toward uniforms. In dermatology offices we see different approaches being taken. Some may have the receptionists in the front office dress more professionally, with specific days carved out for special promotional events. The office could purchase polo shirts with the office logo embroidered on them requiring pants that are cream, black, or grey. Some even want to distinguish clinical staff from each other and from the office receptionist staff. You may dictate a different mode of dress for each type of clinician. [pagebreak]
Whether choosing to go the uniform route, have everyone in scrubs, or to have a professional appearance policy, you need to begin with first defining the standard look that you want all employees to achieve. Then, ask yourself, what are you trying to get out of it? What problem or potential problems are you trying to solve or avoid altogether?
If you feel some items are becoming distracting, like low-cut tops, body piercings, or messages on shirts, you may wish to ban these. Keep in mind that Americans are protected by law from discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, and health history. Of these, the main sticking point is with dress which is associated with religion. Be sure your practice knows the laws before putting policy in writing; the last thing you want is to have an employee call you on discrimination.
Despite possible pitfalls, having a professional appearance policy is a good idea for any physician’s office. This keeps you, the physician, in control of the image you want projected to patients, the community, and each other and allows for no misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the professional image you want all employees to strive toward and uphold. We all know the saying, “we are what we eat.” In this case, the saying, “we are what we wear” is more applicable. What we wear makes the first impression on outsiders looking in on us and may set their opinion of us. Make sure that first impression promotes your practice and your employees will share in a healthy environment, one that reflects positively for all. [pagebreak]
Lastly, as with any policy, make sure that you include a statement that management reserves the right to deem one’s attire as unsatisfactory at any time. Also, management has the right to determine the disciplinary action, if needed, at its discretion on a case-by-case basis. Don’t allow your employees to have the final say just because the policy fails to specifically mention something. You, the physician, along with your management team, need to be the role models. In most medical offices and/or institutions, patients believe that male doctors should wear a shirt, tie, and blazer or sport jacket along with a medical coat or scrubs if performing surgeries. For the female doctors, patients typically expect to see a jacket and shirt with pants, or a dress along with appropriate medical coat or scrubs when performing surgeries.
The outfits help you, as the physician, to look like a doctor in the eyes of your patients. Patients are more likely to follow the instructions of a physician who looks like a polished professional, and an expert, than a person who dresses casually. The same is true with your employees. Employees will follow by example and will adhere to the policies as long as the policies are understood and consistently enforced.
Manuals can help dermatologists handle HR concerns
The American Academy of Dermatology offers two manuals that can help dermatologists handle the HR challenges of running a practice. The Dermatology Employment Manual: A Guide to Personnel Policies and Procedures provides a framework for quickly hiring, training, and managing office staff, and outlines personnel policies and procedures that can be applied to any dermatology practice. The manual includes contract templates for prospective employees and employers, sample job descriptions, interviewing guidelines, application forms, and model policies and procedures for various employment laws. It includes a sample dress code policy as well as discussion of how to implement one.
The Office Policy and Procedure Manual: A Guide for Dermatology Practices assists dermatologists in their day-to-day operations, offering support for a broad range of practice administration topics as well as patient education, time management, and telephone protocols. For more information about both manuals, visit www.aad.org/store/practice-management-resources/.