There is Something about a Man (or Woman) in Uniform
Image from Pixabay
You’re trying to fly across the country, but everything is falling apart. Your flight was cancelled, and you’ve waited in line for nearly an hour to talk to someone about rebooking. When you finally get to the front of the line, the airline employee is rude and incompetent. In your mind, you say something that many people in this exact position have said over the years, “I’m never flying this airline again.”
We interact with employees all the time. Usually everything goes fine, sometimes it goes very well, and sometimes it goes badly. But our reactions to these experiences don’t depend just on how good or bad the experience was; they also depend on how we make sense of the experience. Whose fault was it? Are this company’s other employees just as bad as this one’s? What about other companies in this industry? They have to be better, right?
It turns out that our answers to these questions—and therefore our reactions to countless interactions with companies and employees—depend on something that most of us don’t think about very much: employee uniforms.
In research I recently published with Norbert Schwarz, a psychologist from the University of Southern California, we found that employee uniforms change people’s responses to their service experiences in a variety of ways. Our research shows that people tend to blame bad service more on the company if an employee is wearing a uniform than if he or she is not. Bad service from a uniformed employee also leads people to view the company more negatively, makes other employees of the company seem worse, and even makes other companies seem better compared to identically bad service from a non-uniformed employee.
Something similar happens after good service. The uniform makes the good service seem more like it was caused by the company than by that individual employee, and people rate the company and its other employees more positively than if they get that same good service from someone not wearing a uniform.
Seeing employees in uniforms sends a message that employees and their company are unified. Uniforms make the many employees of a company seem like interchangeable members of their group. As a result, uniforms change our reactions to service experiences, because we perceive that the uniformed employee is more strongly linked to the company and to other employees. Uniforms can make one bad apple spoil the whole bunch.
So uniforms increase the stakes of a service experience. If it’s a bad experience, judgments of the company and its other employees become worse, but if it’s a good experience, these judgments get better. This finding suggests that companies should be sure that their more highly trained employees wear uniforms, because these are the people that companies want to represent them. But if you look at the industries in which uniforms are most prevalent, we see the opposite pattern—the most prominent uniforms are generally worn by the least well-trained and most under-paid employees.
Other research I conducted with Norbert Schwarz, Carey Morewedge, Jesse Chandler, and Jonathon Schooler found that uniforms also make employees seem less human. Because uniformed employees are seen as representatives of their company, we are distracted from the fact that they are human beings with deep and complex inner lives. We see people in uniforms as a little more robotic than non-uniformed people, which may explain why we’re so quick to scream at the poor agent behind the airline counter.
So the next time you find yourself interacting with someone wearing an employee uniform, remember that they’re human. They aren’t just a representative of their company and its other employees—they are a person trying to do their job. If the service isn’t great, that may be the company’s fault, but it may also just be a person having a bad day.
For Further Reading
Smith, R. W., Chandler, J. J., & Schwarz, N. (2020). Uniformity: The effects of organizational attire on judgments and attributions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 50(5), 299-312.
Bless, H., & Schwarz, N. (2010). Mental construal and the emergence of assimilation and contrast effects: The inclusion/exclusion model. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 42, pp. 319-373). Academic Press.
Morewedge, C. K., Chandler, J. J., Smith, R., Schwarz, N., & Schooler, J. (2013). Lost in the crowd: Entitative group membership reduces mind attribution. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(4), 1195-1205.
Robert W. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He studies consumer psychology.