Customers have no way of knowing what a contact centre employee is wearing as they provide service over the telephone. So, does it matter what call centre staff wear to work every day?
Matthew Brown looks at the dress codes in today’s call centres.
Call centres are often away from public view, thus seemingly removing one of the benefits of a staff uniform – as part of a visible brand identity. But the way staff dress can affect morale in a call centre, and some organisations believe that a smart dress code can help improve performance.
What’s the best dress code for your contact centre? We have compiled a handy guide and a downloadable dress code policy.
Business or casual?
The core dilemma of establishing a contact centre dress code is deciding between casual, smart/casual and business dress. This is an especially difficult decision for two reasons:
1) There is no direct customer interaction to inform your decision, unlike in retail where a uniform is paramount to customers being able to pick out a shop assistant in a crowd.
2) Opinion remains divided over whether your dress code can have an effect on the customer experience.
If you would like a copy of our Free Contact Centre Dress Code, click here.
The dress code options
Dress codes can be a minefield, and are always subject to interpretation.
According to the website dresscodeguide.com, a casual dress code can be pretty much anything tasteful and decent.
Smart casual means a collared shirt or polo shirt with trousers such as chinos, dockers or possibly fashion jeans for men. For women smart casual is a jumper, blouse, sweater or cardigan with a skirt, dress or trousers and shoes or boots. T-shirts and anything with a slogan are to be avoided.
At the smarter end of the scale, business standard for men is an outfit of suit jacket and matching trousers, formal collared shirt, usually with a tie, and formal leather shoes, preferably black. A blouse or suit with a smart skirt or tailored trousers and formal shoes with a low heel is the female outfit equivalent.
These basic dress codes are varied endlessly by organisations. But how do they work for call centres?
Smart business dress code
Electrical product retailer Dixons uses smart business attire at its Sheffield contact centre. Men are expected to wear a collared shirt and smart trousers. A blouse and skirt or trousers are the norm for women. Since Dixons is open seven days a week, Friday, weekends and pay days are dress-down days, when staff are allowed to wear casual clothes.
Charity days provide occasions for themed fancy dress. Ties are not worn often, and all staff from sales agents to senior managers dress to the same code. Sales agent Nick Upton can see the benefit of dressing smartly:
“The smart dress code makes for a professional atmosphere and generally people stick to it,” said Upton.
But it can be difficult for managers to enforce the code at certain times of year.
“On hot days emails are sent round reminding everyone what the code is as standards slip,” said Upton.
Staff morale is well served by the chance to dress casually every so often, especially during antisocial working hours.
“I like the fact that you can dress down on Fridays and weekends, it makes it more relaxed,” said Upton.
A staff uniform can foster a sense of shared purpose amongst staff. It can give a contact centre a distinct identity, marking it out as a place where people are proud to work, and their service is valued.
Centrica’s award-winning British Gas contact centre in Cardiff introduced branded polo shirts, rugby shirts and fleeces for staff. John Connolly, Service Excellence Manager, credits the branded clothing as an important part of a turnaround in performance.
“On the journey we’ve been on over the last 3 years, bringing in the dress code was a big turning point,” said Connolly.
The uniform options were introduced to create a professional atmosphere when the company moved to a new contact centre 18 months ago. Staff had previously been free to choose how they dressed without restriction.
A change in dress code can sometimes draw groans of complaint from staff who aren’t keen to adjust their wardrobe choices. At British Gas, an extensive engagement process took the form of a special offer to staff – buy two company logo-branded polo shirts and get a third free.
It worked. The 1,200-strong team of advisors bought more than 3,500 shirts during the first few months. Staff attitudes towards work improved.
“When we started out 3-4 years ago, the media perception of British Gas wasn’t great. The guys in the contact centre probably felt it was a bit of a dirty secret to work for British Gas in the centre of town, they probably didn’t want to advertise the fact they worked here,” said John Connolly.
Employees are now regularly spotted walking around the city centre in their British Gas clothing, providing a massive brand-recognition boost. As a large provider of jobs in Cardiff, this reinforces the relationship with the local community.
The effect of the uniform also suggests employees react to their surroundings. Smarten up the business environment and perhaps the knock-on effect is employees feeling more motivated to do their jobs to the best of their ability. It has certainly worked for British Gas. The contact centre has just been named European Call Centre of the Year for the second year running.
Customers and the general public may not see call centre staff, but potential business partners will. First impressions matter. Potential partners or investors may be put off by scruffy staff.
Existing clients may also be impressed by staff, as Nottingham-based Integrated Communications Services discovered when they introduced a staff uniform. ICS gave branded polo shirts and fleeces for free, reducing the amount of money staff had to spend on work clothing. Smart clothing can be expensive. A free uniform can save staff money and prove a popular alternative to a smart business dress code. The company also found that staff came to prefer the uniform, as they didn’t have to decide what to wear each day.
British Gas and ICS are examples of how a staff uniform can work for a business. But some people believe a dress code can restrict employees unnecessarily.
Contact centre consultant Darryl Beckford believes employers can go wrong by trying to stipulate certain types of clothes that staff may or may not wear to work.
“Personally, I’m not that keen on dress codes. Often employers say that you must wear a tie, or that you can’t wear jeans. Yet I can make jeans, jacket and shoes with no tie look much smarter than an old pair of trousers, worn shirt and polyester tie,” said Beckford.
Employers could simply ask that staff look tidy, whatever type of clothing they choose. Some call centres find that their best-performing staff dress well regardless of dress code. Perhaps dress may be a symptom of high performance, rather than a cause.
“I’m not convinced that how people dress actually changes how they feel, but perhaps it’s better to consider that how they dress displays how they feel,” said Beckford.
Following this logic, managers can look at how staff dress to gauge an individual’s attitude towards their job. If a lot of staff begin to dress smartly over a period of time, without any dress code or rules, then it’s a good indication their attitude to work has improved.
So companies like British Gas, Dixons and ICS have used a smartened-up dress code or uniform to create professionalism or help transform their business. But ultimately, dress comes down to the individual. Someone will always manage to make a suit look scruffy or jeans look smart. Whatever dress code a call centre uses, perhaps the most important thing is to ensure that staff follow it.
Taking a sensible approach to tattoos
The displaying of body art is another sensitive area you will likely encounter when establishing your contact centre dress code. While a complete cover-up policy can seem extreme for a non-customer-facing role, you will need to draw the line somewhere. Doing so can be tricky, though.
“Each person’s body art will be different, meaning a fixed policy is difficult,” said Ann Oliver, Senior Associate at Charles Russell LLP. “However, the company should form a view as to what it generally considers acceptable. For example, would a single tattoo on an arm be acceptable, where an entire ‘sleeve’ might not? A sensible approach would be to limit the policy provisions to visible tattoos.”
“In addition, specific training should be given to those who will be required to enforce the policy, including how to deal sensitively with the issue. Body art is very personal and individuals may not take kindly to what they may perceive as criticism or an attempt to repress their personality.”
Making decisions about religious clothing
“We are lucky enough to live in a culturally diverse society where we can generally wear whatever we want,” said Amanda Trewhella, solicitor at Fisher Meredith. “However, in the workplace, employers are allowed to exercise an element of control over their employees where it is necessary for legitimate business reasons.”
The main issue that a manager is likely to face with religious clothing in the contact centre is the practicality of an agent wearing a headset, especially in the event of an agent wishing to wear their turban or headscarf in the office.
Accommodating your agents’ choice of headwear may be as easy as increasing the volume on a standard headset to compensate for the fabric covering their ears. If this doesn’t solve the problem, however, you may need to try a different style of headset.
“We offer a number of options of wearing style to try and satisfy the needs of the individual and for them to be able to personalise their headset as they wish to ensure all-day comfort,” said Amanda Bowbanks from Jabra. “We tend to provide the typical over-the-head wearing style headband within the box. This is also normally accompanied by an earhook for behind the ear wearing style. In addition, some headsets are also compatible with a behind-the-head wearing band.”
All employees have the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their religion or belief. An element of a person’s religious belief may be that they should wear a particular piece of clothing or jewellery, such as a veil or a cross on a necklace.
While an employee’s religious beliefs should be respected where possible in the workplace, there are be a number of factors that an employer should consider before making a decision:
- Don’t make assumptions about the significance of a religion or belief. Speak to the individual employee about their beliefs, which may differ from another person belonging to the same religion.
- Ensure that all requests are considered in the same way. The best way to do this is to have an equal opportunities policy and dress code which applies to everyone.
- Consider the effect of allowing the request on other employees at the same workplace.
- Consider health and safety implications.
- Consider your businesses needs in terms of uniform and corporate image.
- Consider the effect on your clients, customers or service users. This will be particularly relevant where the role requires face-to-face contact.
If you would like a copy of our Free Contact Centre Dress Code, click here.
Deciding what is best for your contact centre
While you may end up trialling a number of different dress codes in the long run, we’ve pulled together a handful of opinions to help you decide what might be the best option for your contact centre.
So what do you think?
- “After 25 years, I have come to the simple conclusion that if you dress more professionally, then you act more professionally” – With thanks to Joseph
- “We have recently moved to casual wear across all sites. I can’t speak for other sites but we have seen no adverse effects in our office. I don’t think, in non-customer-facing roles, that it makes any difference. We trust our staff to make the right choices (with a little guidance)” – With thanks to Kevin
- “One thing that always stuck with me was a quote from a client who was visiting a contact centre with no dress code at all. As we stood outside after a shift had ended, he said; ‘Goodness me, it’s like standing outside a sixth form college after school hours!’ Maybe it’s the impression it gives to people that we need to take into account when deciding what our agents should wear to work.” – With thanks to Phil
- “We are casual, and the productivity has not been affected at all. People spend an inordinate amount of time in the workplace and I would like them to look forward to coming to work. If a simple thing, like how you dress, can have a positive effect, then I say go with it. Happy staff make happy customers – fact!” – With thanks to Mark
Matthew Brown is an up-and-coming writer and the latest addition to the Call Centre Helper team.
What dress code do you use in your contact centre? Have you found any problems? We’d be interested to hear your opinions.
Have we missed anything?