Uniform Appeal: Employee Uniforms

There's more on the rack than apparel for contractors who dress employees. Image, pride, professionalism and safety are some matches for success.

Lawn and landscape employees are models for their companies, and the uniforms they wear on the job can project a clean-cut image that identifies their trade and portrays unity and quality service. If a client’s front yard is the runway for first impressions, contractors are wise to outfit their employees in professional garb.

While the "contractor catwalk" might not be a show of trend-setting technicians, workers tout advantages of company attire – comfort, camaraderie and pride. Standing out isn’t necessarily the goal – uniformity is. "Perception is reality," noted Terri Myers, office manager, American Beauty Landscaping, Youngstown, Ohio. "Inevitably, everything boils down to the client and customer service, and when our company name is visible, it establishes credibility."

ACHIEVING THE LOOK. Myers admits her company’s navy blue uniforms are not flashy – the logo is sized for visibility and workers pair knit shirts with either khakis or jeans. But making a fashion statement isn’t the goal for American Beauty Landscaping.

"We want to establish professionalism, first off," she explained. "We tried it the other way – without uniforms – and we had a couple of instances where people wanted things under their own liberty. We tried to accept this under certain circumstances, but there was animosity between employees and there wasn’t a professional character on the job site."

Some technicians arrived to work in army fatigues instead of jeans, and workers would substitute their uniforms with T-shirts when they didn't have clean attire, she said. Establishing a code of uniformity for her workers created a clean-cut team and garnered positive feedback from customers, who appreciated easy identification of workers on their property, she added.

"The key is that employees go to a person’s home," stressed Neil Lazaroth, co-owner, Clean Uniform Company, St. Louis, Mo. "They want to project an image that the company knows what it is doing – that it’s professional and the employees are clean and neat and look attractive. Uniforms help that identity program."

Uniformity means choosing a color, a logo and an overall image, Lazaroth added. With various shades of green available, employees could choose different shades, resulting in a green-graded rainbow. Lazaroth recommended setting a company standard by ordering matching separates from a uniform service or catalog.

"A good baseball team is going to be wearing the same uniforms – the same color, same logo," he compared. "Uniformity projects quality, efficiency, reliability and a winning spirit – a winning team."

Contractors shouldn’t skimp on uniform essentials, he added. "If you send out a baseball team with just shirts on, you don’t do the whole job. They have the same socks, shoes, pants – a whole look. At a minimum, they wear pants and shirts."

Besides achieving a cohesive look, uniforms flaunt both economic and safety benefits. Lazaroth said studies suggest companies that provide employees with uniforms can charge more for their services, and their technicians are less prone to work-related injuries. "I think when people are in their own raggedy jeans, then there’s less concern about their personal appearance and their work tends to get sloppy," he related.

Admitting that she is a "believer in first impressions," Karen Sikes, manager, Sunshine Spray Services, Auburndale, Fla., considers uniforms a sign of caring about company details, protecting technicians from the elements and presenting a fresh image to clients. "In our business, people don’t want dirty, nasty, sweaty," she said, laughing.

"We know how to put the window dressing on and give people a sense of security – a sense that our employees know what they are doing," she continued. "If you put a company with good service and good appearance together, you will be successful."

Sikes is adamant in her theory, commenting that she would pay for uniforms out of her own pocket if necessary. She washes her two technicians’ shirts herself in a separate washing machine she keeps in her garage, collecting all of the "work" laundry in a designated hamper. "My guys are too important," she remarked.

And "the guys" echo the importance of coordinating apparel, she said. "They are as bad as kids at Christmas when I get new uniforms," she related. "The younger employee of the two didn’t see the value of uniforms at first, but he has since. The older of the two always said he felt like a different person when he put the uniform on. I think it was the fact that he was a part of something successful, his name was on it and it was especially for him."

PICKING FROM THE RACK. Choosing apparel to suit company needs goes beyond picking among polo shirts and pants. Contractors must consider their target market and environment before deciding on a uniform that will best serve employees. No two companies are alike – while one operation provides pesticide applications, another engages in major installations. Certain tasks require special protection, which needs to be examined before committing to professional dress, stressed Kerry Ashforth, business account manager, WearGuard, Norwell, Mass.

"Sometimes companies that apply pesticides will want protection for their employees, so they might order coveralls," she noted. "A lot of companies handle the transportation end of things where they are doing deliveries and they want drivers to look professional, yet remain cool and comfortable. They look for abrasion resistance because they wear a seatbelt and they don’t want a patch of worn-out twill near the middle of their shirt."

Companies should look for uniforms that stand up to excessive washing, abrasion, stains and heavy wear. Fabric can be treated with a soil release finish to prevent stains and fading. Poly-cotton blends are popular among contractors because they do not wrinkle, can be laundered easily and retain color, Ashforth said.

After assessing the toll job requirements take on material, companies can customize their uniforms based on the client base, she noted. While landscape operations that service high-end customers seek a classier look – polo shirts vs. T-shirts – companies who do not focus on upper-crust commercial accounts might lean toward more casual attire. "Uniforms should reflect the image of their clientele," Ashforth commented.

Contractors target dress to meet customer expectations, and today they are much more style-savvy when placing orders, noted Daniela Quilter, marketing and merchandise manager for rental apparel, G & K Services, Minnetonka, Minn. "People are becoming a little more fashion conscious about what’s going on around them," she observed. "The variety of apparel has become more important and we try to service that demand. We have been working on expanding our uniforms to offer our customers an edge."

Popular options include polo and denim shirts, relaxed-fit pants and shorts in softer fabrics, Quilter said. "Comfort is a factor for those who are wearing uniforms, and employees have responded well to these changes because we are basically giving them options."

MAKING AN IMPRESSION. Companies generally stick with a uniform style and design for quite some time, ordering replacement shirts each season. Uniform appearance is evolving, but most follow a traditional suit when ordering professional attire. Some, however, rely on attention-grabbing attire to distinguish their company from competitors. John Ross, president, John Ross, Flat Rock, N.C., said his signature teal-colored shirts are notorious eye catchers.

"When I first started, we had two guys," he explained. "We just cut grass, and we would have one yard on one side of town and one on the other. People would say they spotted us, so it made us look like we had more people than we did."

The visibility of his company’s shirts is an advertising tool, and after expanding the business from two to 26 employees Ross is reluctant to modify company dress.

"The shirts are free advertising – Yellow Pages are expensive," noted Dennis Rocheleau, executive director, Innovative Landscapes, Ltd., Lapeer, Mich. "We have referrals that have called just because we were there – the neighbors saw us."

Such employee recognition is an asset not only for promotional purposes, but also for safety reasons. Ashforth cited a situation where a customer misidentified a cable company that didn’t previously outfit their employees. While the technician was installing cable, the homeowner pulled a shotgun on the worker, she said. "This incident made the cable company rethink their position on identity apparel. That was the impetus to going to a uniform program."

Dennis Minelli, operations manager, Twombly Nursery, Monroe, Conn., added that providing uniforms that feature his company’s logo allows customers to understand his mission and purpose. "If a customer looks out their window and sees a rock ‘n roll T-shirt and a pair of broken-down jeans, they might say, ‘What are you doing here,’" he described. "I think clients like to see some sort of continuity so when they see six guys in their yard, they know they belong there."

Visibility surpasses security measures. Myers expands her approach to a "uniform appearance," with hygienic requirements such as discouraging earrings and requesting employees to trim long hair behind the ear. "We ask them upfront when they sign our code of conduct if they would be willing to remove facial hair, earrings, etc.," she said. "They may hesitate, but once they adopt the general policy as their own, they develop a sense of pride."

WEARING THE BENEFITS. Pride forms only part of the benefit package uniforms offer employees. Contractors who supply attire for their technicians demonstrate an interest in their workers. "Uniforms have a combination of benefits," Quilter noted. "As a company you get the advantage of having employees in impeccable uniforms, and as an employee, you don’t have to think about what to wear to work," she explained.

Commitment to providing conveniences to employees results in a higher labor retention rate for company owners. And when employees feel ownership in their workplace, their attitude, self-esteem and performance improves.

In addition, providing professional attire can be economically sound for employers, Quilter added. "If you have a high turnover, you outfit your employees, then they leave and take the clothes with them and you have to repurchase apparel," she said, explaining the difference between renting and buying uniforms. "In a rental business, a new employee comes on board and then you get the uniform back from the person who left to outfit the new person."

Uniform cost is miniscule when compared to the value they bring to businesses, Lazaroth stressed. Expenses vary among companies, with some paying up to $15,000 every year for uniforms and others ordering T-shirts in bulk from a catalog for $7.99 each. Lazaroth estimated that a uniform service puts a $6 dent in a contractor’s pocket per employee every week. Myers offsets her uniform budget with an initial $75 employee uniform fee, and Ross keeps a check on apparel inventory by requiring workers who leave the company to turn in their attire before they receive their last check.

Despite the costs, Rocheleau confirmed that his $700 annual uniform expenditure is a worthwhile investment. His workers lend input when he orders new attire and are enthusiastic when the uniforms arrive, he added.

"When we handed out the shirts this year, they were really looking forward to new uniforms," he noted, describing the new sleeveless crew shirt that replaced T-strap tank tops his employees used to wear. "We had a meeting, thanked them for their contribution to the company and passed out the uniforms – they couldn’t get them fast enough. It’s a sharp little shirt."

Customer demand for service-related maintenance is swelling, which includes the landscape industry, Lazaroth pointed out. Companies who offer benefits to their employees and customers will thrive in the market, and uniformed technicians with a professional appearance can win accounts.

"You have to differentiate yourself as to why your service is better than someone else’s," he stressed. "I give a better service, have better trained employee and portray that because they are uniformed."

The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

October 2000
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