Bucking The Fashion Police

Posted Feb. 2, 2008


Published:

Sophie Sue eyes one of Dr. Khuly’s favorite pairs of veterinary-consultant-disapproved shoes, which she regularly wears to work.

This past year has seen articles and letters in several notable vet publications (including this one last month) extolling the virtue of dressing just right in a veterinary practice setting.

They’ve uniformly (excuse the pun) decried the lack of professionalism among younger vets and staff and pushed for standards in dress befitting the greater professionalism that attends our emerging status as “family doctors.”

No jeans. No scrubs for vets. No long nails. No “bizarre” or dangly jewelry. Ties for guys. Flats for girls. And white lab coats all around!

For the record, I think I’ve broken at least one of the “rules” recently printed on this subject on every single day of my veterinary practice career. And I have no regrets—and few complaints, for that matter.

While I can understand the desire for standards that meet the goal of every individual practice, don’t expect me to work in a hospital that prohibits my own personal uniform: open-toed platform shoes, expensive jeans, simple scrub tops, sparkle-painted toenails, two-tone hair, designer frames and a stethoscope fashionably entwined ’round my neck. Don’t like it? You’re free to decline my services… and I’m free to go elsewhere.

And that’s where the reality of veterinary care-giving intersects adversely with the great white lab-coat hope of the managerial set: Because ultimately it’s about the caregiver—not the dress code.

Sure, it’s obvious that dressing professionally encourages client compliance, boosts profits and fosters a professional manner among all personnel. Nothing, however, does so much for your bottom line as actually doing good work and building trust on a foundation of actual merit.

Don’t agree? Look at one of this country’s top 25 places to work: Starbucks. Go ahead and ask any of those inked and pierced Starbucks employees. They may wear their green and black, but they tend to do so with a flair for independent expression that defies any straight-laced company’s restrictive policies. Blue hair is definitely on the menu at your local coffee shop.

Insulted that I would deign to compare our work with a blight on the strip mall landscape? Perhaps you should be—but not if profitability is the ultimate measure of success. On that score I’ll bet the local Starbucks beats out the best of us by a hefty margin.

I posit that the reason the vet profession has been slow to adopt rigorous dress codes has more to do with the maverick personality types drawn to it than with any issue of perceived slovenliness required when working with animals.

It’s my experience that we relish our individuality more than most professions, as the colorful disarray in evidence at any conference will at once attest.

"Don’t expect me to work in a hospital that prohibits my own personal uniform."

We can bemoan the “lazy” vets or the slacker generation’s lax protocols when it comes to personal appearance all we want, but that will not change our preferred ways with respect to physical presentation. Though well intentioned, dress code restrictions will more likely yield a whack-a -mole of unintended consequences-- grungy whites, needless resentment or myriad “fit” issues that might otherwise have been avoided.

I have no quarrel with practice management gurus who recommend we adopt greater professionalism in how we present ourselves.

I do, however, take issue with the contention that slavish adherence to dress codes will accomplish this. Ultimately, sourcing the best and brightest employees is the greatest boon to professionalism any practice could ever hope for. Creating artificially restrictive standards puts up needless barriers to this endeavor.

Which brings me to the concern I hold most dear when it comes to dress codes in vet practice: How customer-focused is an enterprise at the expense of its employees’ personal success in their place of work? The single biggest problem I see among vets and staff in most private practices is turnover, not lack of professionalism.

As an avid watcher of management trends in a variety of service industries, I’m gratified to observe the steady erosion of the single-minded, client-focused business principle typified by the axiom “The customer is always right.” That’s because mindless dedication to this theme inevitably conspires to wreak havoc on the basic nature of a service company’s biggest asset: its people.

As a result, many “client-first” businesses err on the side of unhappy employees and greater turnover—which translates into less professionalism and lower profits. Empowering employees through individual expression, especially in a culture predisposed to it, is a fundamental tenet of any employee-friendly management philosophy.

It’s my experience that vets and staff are far more satisfied when managers focus their employee development efforts (and dollars) on continuing education, teambuilding and customer satisfaction training. When it comes to dress, simple safety and cleanliness should reign supreme.

After all, if it takes a mirror image of a client’s appearance to establish trust and reflect professionalism, or if a hospital requires the appearance of uniformity to encourage teamsmanship, I’d be suspicious, indeed, of what basic deficits in character, care and culture might underlie the need for such superficial demands. <HOME>

Dr. Khuly blogs regularly at www.dolitter.com.

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