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What are they wearing?

Issue 1

The dental office is no place to show your undergarments.

The dental office is no place to show your undergarments.

Sounds like common sense, but recently a reader wrote on DPR’s Facebook page that she was dealing with just that problem. It’s not uncommon for her to see what type and what color underwear one of the practice’s young hygienists is wearing, something she finds a bit unprofessional.

This post prompted us to seek out some advice. What is and what isn’t appropriate for the dental office? What type of dress code policy should practices have on hand? What should be done when a team member doesn’t adhere to the policy? Here’s what we found out.

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No matter how big or small your practice, you need a dress code. Some small practices opt not to have a dress code, but that is a mistake, said Penny Reed Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. No matter how small your office is, you’re not immune to someone coming into the practice with something you, and likely your patients, deem inappropriate. It’s best to have a policy from the beginning, so your employees know how they’re expected to look when they walk into the practice.  

This policy should be in writing and be part of the office personnel manual, Image expert Janice Hurley-Trailor said. All potential hires should have the chance to read the policies before they accept the job. The dress code should outline clothing and personal care expectations, with photos included to show employees the best way to wear their uniforms.

“The biggest mistake that doctors make is to either think their team members professional appearance will never be a problem or to lead from a position of weakness – afraid that their team members will be upset with them if they are told specifically what is acceptable and what is not,” Hurley-Trailor said.  “My experience in this area is just the opposite.  Having very specific dress code guidelines and enforcing them consistently leads to team pride and reduces the inner friction that occurs when everyone is left to make this important business decision on their own. “

Remember, new patients determine very quickly if your office is for them, Hurley-Trailor, said. This is based on an emotional response they get when they meet the dentist and the team for the first time, so that first impression better be good.

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Creating the policy. If you don’t already have a policy, this is a great time to create one, especially if a team member has brought a problem to your attention, Limoli said. If a team member notices a problem, chances are your patients have noticed it as well.  The office manager and practice owners should sit down together to hammer out a dress code. Feel free to share initial thoughts with team members and ask for their input, but make sure they understand their suggestions may not make the cut. Some team members may think it’s perfectly OK to wear eyebrow piercings in the dental practice, when the practice owners do not.

“This whole topic has to fall under the umbrella of patient expectations,” Limoli said. “We have to put ourselves in the position of what do I expect when I go into a practice. I’ve been in the industry almost 20 years and it’s more competitive than I’ve ever seen it, and I would do everything I could to make the best impression on patients when they come into the office. Most people still aren’t comfortable in a dental office. The reception area has to be neat and clean and so does the team, and that includes the doctor.”

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What to include. Even if it seems like common sense to you, if a certain type of dress could lead to a potential problem you should included it in the dress code. Here are examples of items Limoli said you should include in your office dress code:

  • No visible piercings or tattoos.

  • Scrubs should not be wrinkled or stained.

  • Employees should not smell of cigarette smoke or wear too much perfume.

  • Make up shouldn’t be over the top.

  • Wear socks and deodorant.

  • Men should keep facial hair trimmed.

  • Appropriate undergarments should be worn, and that means underwear that doesn’t show through scrubs.

  • No skin should be exposed while doing the job.

  • Pants should be long enough to at least touch the top of the shoe.

  • Remember the dress code should be very detailed, Hurley-Trailor said, and include all of your clothing and personal care expectations.

Related reading: Top tips for tats and piercings in the dental practice

Think about a uniform.  If you really want to convey professionalism in your practice, Limoli recommends looking into team uniforms. That means everybody wears the same color everyday, whether that’s navy blue or light blue every day or maybe different colors for different days of the week.  The doctor’s uniform should be a little different, maybe a different color scrub or include a lab coat, so it’s easy for patients to distinguish the doctor from the rest of the team.

“One of my clients has one of the best dress codes. If they’re going to wear a t-shirt under their scrub top, it must be white or navy because that’s what complements the scrubs. If a team member wants to wear something over a scrub shirt, they need to wear one of their lab jackets or team sweatshirts,” Limoli said. “It can be expensive getting that started, but it’s a marketing expense and it takes out of the equation what team members are going to wear.”

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Enforcing the policy. Once you have a policy in place, you have to be consistent when it comes to enforcing it, Hurley-Trailor said. And you have to make sure you include repercussions for dress code violations in your dress code, so team members know what to expect if they come to work in something they know they shouldn’t be wearing.

“You absolutely cannot ignore infractions with one person and try to enforce those same guidelines with another,” she said. “ We take offense when we think we are being treated unfairly and that perception occurs when accountability is not handed out in an impartial manner.  There is a country song that says: “I hate the sin, not the sinner,” and that should be the way we approach implementing a dress code.  The focus is on NOT breaching the guidelines that say no dangly earrings by the clinical team, not getting upset with the person wearing those earrings.”

When a team member comes to you with concerns about another team member’s dress, you can’t ignore it, Hurley-Trailor said. Check to make sure that everything is clear in the written policy and if it isn’t, bring it up at the next team meeting.  Let the team know that maybe you haven’t been as clear as you should have been about your expectations. It’s important that you address the rules, not the individual, if your policies and enforcement have been lax. If you feel the expectations are clear, talk with the team member privately in your office.

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Dress is important. How we dress in the work place matters, Hurley-Trailor said, with studies showing that personal actions are effected by how we’re dressed. Not only that, how we’re dressed changes how people treat us. This becomes even more important in a dental practice.

“Every day we are encouraging our patients to trust us and follow our clinical recommendations,” Hurley-Trailor said.  “When our patients see us in the very best light and treat us with respect, it encourages us to treat ourselves and our recommendations with confidence.”


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