Individual Drops in a Sea of Maroon

My workplace – like many – sends out customer satisfaction surveys. One of the things that gets a lot of attention is when a particular employee’s name is mentioned. We’ve gone to lengths to ensure that our names end up in the customer’s hands – two cards, name badges, and scripted verbal greetings all repeat our name over and over.

Yet during the first part of this year, it seems like that’s happening less and less. Admittedly, this is just an offhand observation, and just for my section in my department at one place in the very large company I work for, but it’s striking enough to have been mentioned by managers at two consecutive staff meetings.

I think it’s our clothes.

We’ve had guidelines the whole time I’ve worked here, but some degree of diversity was permitted in our uniforms. However, since the start of this year, our uniforms are color-coded by our department. Also, our uniforms must all be purchased from the same vendor (purportedly to ensure that the colors match). The rationale is that this coordinated color schema will allow our customers to recognize what department each employee is with at a glance.

I don’t know if it is achieving that goal. But this uniformity is uncannily similar to the sensibility that requires servants to all dress the same way. It is – whether intentionally or not – a dehumanizing mechanism. The same mechanism is used with uniforms at schools and military with great success. It makes the employees – myself included – not individual people, but gives us the appearance of interchangeable cogs in the group.

I work in a sea of maroon.

Again, I don’t know if this new uniform policy is achieving its stated goals. It doesn’t particularly matter to me – I like the color we are wearing, and would probably be wearing it anyway. But being just another drop in the sea of maroon means that it’s more difficult for my customers to relate to me as an individual. Instead, there are significant visual cues that I am not a person, but a role.

Roles do not have their names put on customer satisfaction surveys.

Neither the surveys nor the uniform policy is a bad thing, especially when viewed individually. However, the preliminary evidence – in the lesser number of employee names on surveys – seems to support the theoretical perspective that these two polices are at loggerheads. We – both my company, and other companies in the workplace – must be alert for the unintended consequences of our policy decisions. It is only once we realize these problems that we can shift our goals, methods, or policies in order to achieve success.

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