The downside of company uniforms

When people receive poor service from an employee wearing a uniform, they blame your company much more harshly - and like competitors more.

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Marketing is so much more than digital marketing. Today’s research looks at the effect of uniforms in a physical retail or service environment.

Thank you Norbert Schwarz (Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California), one of the co-authors, for sharing the practical takeaways of this study to form the backbone of this tip.


Uniforms make people blame the company for poor service, but mainly credit the employee when things go well

Impacted metrics: Brand attitudes | Customer satisfaction
Channels: Retail store | Sales team | Customer service
For: Mainly B2C

Tip type: Existing research (March 2020)
Previous tip: How the first review decides the fate of your product (All tips here)

Recommendation

Customers will judge your company more harshly if a uniformed (vs non-uniformed) employee misbehaves or provides bad service.

To protect against this:

  • Inexperienced new employees should wear different uniforms (e.g. “Trainee”) or no uniforms.

  • Try to have your best employees make the first customer contact when possible.

  • Relax uniform requirements when you open a new location (since there will likely be teething issues) or your employees’ performance is impacted by external factors (e.g. large queues due to Covid-related store capacity limitations).

Effects

  • In general, previous research finds that making employees wear uniforms has many positive effects (e.g. makes employees easier to find and identify, conveys legitimacy, can improve the wearer’s behavior).

  • However, if people have a poor experience with an employee, they give greater (65% more, in one experiment) blame to the company if the employee was wearing a uniform.

  • This develops into a more extreme dislike of the company and thinking better of competitors.

  • On the other hand, when people have a good experience with a uniformed employee, they mostly credit the employee rather than the company - although they still judge the company more positively.

  • Depending on their first encounter with a uniformed employee (positive or negative), people will judge other employees more similarly if they are uniformed.

  • The effect is likely to also apply to other organizations that wear uniforms (e.g. police, firefighters, doctors).


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Why it works

  • Employees in uniform seem more similar to one another than without uniform.

  • As a result, when one misbehaves and provides bad service, we expect all the others are more likely to do so as well.

Limitations

  • The study tested the effects in lab and online experiments, not in a real-life environment. So pay extra attention when implementing it.

  • Overall, it’s unclear when exactly the risks outweigh the positive aspects of making employees (usually) wear uniforms, even in a poor service environment.

Companies using this

  • Most consumer-facing B2C providers mandate employee uniforms.

  • When surveyed about what they would do with regards to uniform-wearing in a situation of poor employee service, almost half of managers would increase it. Only 7% said they would reduce it.

Steps to implement

  • Ideally, you have strong systems in place to detect employees that offer poor service and retrain them or move them to less customer-facing tasks. This will remove many of the risks.

  • If you’re unable to control for occasional poor service or you are facing unusual adverse conditions, apply the recommendations of this tip as needed (e.g. by asking employees to not wear uniforms or wear different ones).


Study type

Lab and online experiments. United States

Research

Smith, R. W., Chandler, J. J., & Schwarz, N. (March 2020). Uniformity: The effects of organizational attire on judgments and attributions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 50(5), 299-312.

[Link to paper]

Affiliations

Tilburg School of Economics and Management, Tilburg University; Mathematica; Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; and Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

Remember: This research could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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