The Psychology of a Uniformed Workforce

By Robert Holmes | business

Mar 11

Workers in the military have been wearing uniforms since before written history. Today, many vocations insist on a uniform: hospital nurses and doctors’ scrubs; public sanitation officers; bus, train, taxi and tram staff; military, police and security forces; mechanics, stevedores and crane operators; construction workers, infrastructure and mining operators; the hospitality industry and the subtler stockbroker’s suit.

One of my clients is a supervisor among the high-vis wearing construction workforce of the ACT light rail. He was telling me about a day he got in trouble for creating a potential safety incident by not wearing the correct uniform. Another client is in early childhood education at a private school, and she got sent home to change her dress because it didn’t comply with school dress code. A third client just left the NSW police force to take up a new career. He told me how much he misses the uniform, the badge and the gun… but mostly the gun.

Think about how profoundly our workmates, our industries and our career paths are affected by the unconscious nudge of uniforms. Unlike my uniformed clients, I have never been told off for breaking a dress code, have never been sent home to change my outfit because it didn’t meet the regulation and I have never missed my uniform or gun (yes, I used to own guns). So, it was hard for me to connect to their experiences.

You don’t quite realise the power of that unconscious effect until you’re not wearing a uniform and are standing in a group of people who are. It’s like turning up to a construction site without your hard hat. It can be very subtle, and the uniform doesn’t even have to be uniform! I turned up to a track day to re-learn racing-corning at Eastern Creek on my motorcycle shortly after these three examples, and I felt it. Everybody else (it seemed) had racing leathers, and in-helmet sun visors, wheel-stands and tyre-warmers, racing slicks… and I did not. On a road registered bike, I stuck out, and felt almost ostracised (though I’m quite sure my fellow racers did not intend that at all).

Uniformed labour forces are often highly organised and structured. Whether they wanted to or not, the workers are being profoundly affected by the rules governing those work forces. Having felt at least something of the effect myself it got me wondering… what does psychological research tell us about the effect uniforms have?

1. Uniforms increase visibility and anonymity

In public, uniformed workforces stand out. On construction sites visibility improves safety, but can also make uniformed officers the target of outrage (e.g. Border Force patrol officers are told to cover their uniforms when going out on a break in the aftermath of the Parramatta police station shooting).

Paradoxically, when people in uniform are all together, they blend in, giving anonymity and the occurence of herd mentality (group think) goes up. The sense of anonymity can lead to higher incidence of aggression and violence too (Rehm, Steinleitner & Lilli, 1987). Certain uniforms, like those of a house maid, a cleaner or a gardener can cause them to blend in too because of the way our brains treat background information.

2. Uniforms enhance authority and the risk of abuse

Uniforms automatically increase respect. Stanley Milgram in 1961 was exploring the topic of obedience and found that compliance with authority increased when the instructors and actors wore “scientific uniform” (a white lab coat). That authority works for both the person wearing it, and those around who recognise the station that comes with the uniform.

Paradoxically, borrowed authority can quickly be abused. Philip Zimbardo in 1971 conducted the infamous Stanford prison experiments. Authority turned quickly into abuse in a role play where uniformed ‘guards’ beat the ‘inmates’. This has been played out in many real-life situations, not the least of which was WWII in Germany and Japan, and more recently Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

3. Uniforms increase satisfaction and compliance

Uniforms enhance the ‘employee-organization link’, which improves commitment and reduces absenteeism (Mowday, Porter & Steers, 1984). Uniforms increase employee satisfaction through increased self-confidence, the perception of autonomy, and enhanced credibility – but only when the employee is involved in uniform design and selection (Nelson & Bowen, 2000).

Paradoxically, uniforms also increase compliance, both in workforces and in school student bodies. In fact, the use of student uniforms has been found to reduce the risk of violence and theft, and instil better discipline (DeMitchell, 2015). However, the results are mixed (depending on other factors like enforcement, culture and leadership).

A legal note about uniforms

In the jurisdictions of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada there is a distinction between unionised and non-unionised workplaces and between public and private organisations, and how they deal with uniforms.

In a non-unionised workplace, there are very few restrictions to an employer’s ability to impose a policy requiring a uniform (thereby regulating the appearance of employees). So long as the policy does not discriminate against any individual employee, the organisation can expect a lot.

In a unionised workplace, employers must be able to establish that the uniform policy is “reasonable”. What is reasonable is an assessment made on the facts of each circumstance should there be a claim.

Public sector employers must also consider whether the policy interferes with an employee’s right to freedom of expression (Bungay, 2015).

Conclusion

My challenge to you is to start becoming conscious of the effect that dress, dress code and uniform have on yourself and the people around you. Observe how compliant people are to certain uniforms, and how other uniforms cause people to disappear as they blend in with the host of things we ignore. See if your own behaviour is in any way biased or anchors to the way others dress.

Footnotes

Bungay, J., (2015). Appearance in the workplace: can it be regulated by the employer? www.coxandpalmerlaw.com

DeMitchell, T.A., (2015). Does wearing a school uniform improve student behaviour? University of New Hampshire, The Conversation, Dec 15, 2015

Mowday, R.T., Porter, L.W., & Steers, R.M., (1984). Employee-Organization Linkages: the psychology of commitment, absenteeism and turnover.

Nelson, K., & Bowen, J., (2000). The Effect of Employee Uniforms on Employee Satisfaction, Cornell university (Hotel and Restaurant Admin quarterly).

Rehm, J., Steinleitner, M., & Lilli, W., (1987). Wearing uniforms and aggression–A field experiment, European Journal of Social Psychology, 17 (3): 357-360.

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About the Author

Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and performance enhancement with a passion for neurology, leadership and the psychology of potential. He believes it is important to bring hard science to coaching, and that coaching practices be evidence based and research backed. Robert is a founding partner at Frazer, Holmes Coaching and current Director of Brand and Marketing for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA). Robert is a professionally certified coach (PCC) with over 20 years of business experience and an ICF Accredited Mentor Coach. He is an Associate at the National Speaker's Association, a member of the Coaching Psychology interest group at the APS, a certified Action Learning Coach, a Member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.