August 15, 2016
Symbols are one of the key elements of culture (along with language, values, beliefs, and norms). Most service oriented companies or organizations have a uniform and its purpose is to be symbolic of that organization. I work for the Navy and I am amazed when someone points out a specific characteristic about someone else simply because it is displayed on their uniform. You can find out a sailor’s pay grade, place in the chain of command, their job of expertise, and their specialty/qualifications to the professional community simply by looking at the uniform they are wearing. As a civilian, I don’t wear anything that reflects my rank or qualifications, nor that I am even an employee of NCDOC. We do have NCDOC shirts that different groups or associations have made over the years, but wearing them are optional. I am not advocating for a civilian uniform necessarily, but there is something symbolically meaningful about what we wear (or don’t wear) as an organization. In general, uniforms can serve multiple purposes: it is can be simply for showing who we work for as well as something more meaningful that may affect our organizational behavior. An example of how I know this happens is reflected on certain Fridays when we are given the opportunity to wear sports team jerseys. As a proud supporter of the best NFL team (yes, I said “THE BEST”) – the Pittsburgh Steelers – I wear my team jersey proudly as do my other coworkers who proudly wear their team jerseys. How does this affect our behavior? We are visible in who we support and it usually enables us to engage in a conversation, give high-fives or fist-pumps to show our common support, and maybe for some of us we “talk smack” about each others teams, but we will most likely still engage in discussions about our expectations of the upcoming or current season. In any case, we make connections on a different level – a human level – one with shared or common values about the sport and our teams.
I recently had lunch at a Texas Roadhouse and noticed that most of the employees were wearing black tee shirts with their logo on the front and then a phrase, “I <heart> my job!”. I couldn’t help but ask the bartender if she really did love her job or if she was wearing the shirt because it was the work uniform. In short, the bartender’s answer was “yes” to both. She further explained that they are given two different shirts upon hire; each say something different: 1) “I love my job!”, and 2) “I support our troops”. Yes, they wear these shirts because the Corporate Office tells them to, but she was also quick to add that she actually does love her job. I asked her if she thought the rest of the employees also loved their jobs, and on that, she gave me the “safe” answer: “I can’t really speak for all the others, but I would say, for the most part, we all do here.” The question of, “Do the shirts reflect how the employees actually feel about their job?” gave me the opportunity to share how the symbolic meaning of the shirts reflect the culture of what (I presume) the Corporate Office is trying to create. She was very intrigued and we came up with an idea about giving employees the option to wear a blank shirt on days that perhaps you don’t quite feel like you love your job. We all have those days and we may not want to say or admit it out loud, but it’s those days that we need our co-workers to give us a little extra TLC or perhaps some space. The blank shirts can be an internal message to each other saying, “I’m having a bad day”, “I’m frustrated with my job”, or simply, “I had nothing else to wear”. In any of these circumstances, wearing a blank tee shirt would ideally connect you on a human level with your co-workers by helping or enabling a deeper level of engagement and empathy among the workforce. When someone wears a blank shirt, one of your co-workers would reach out to find out if everything was okay. As employees got to know each other better, they would understand and know how to deal with each other better. The bartender was so fired up about this idea and was very curious to see if it would work for them. I told her she should talk to her manager and pitch the idea. Instead, she thought the idea would be better received if it came from me, so she brought the manager over to talk to me. We discussed the idea and he showed some genuine interest and said he would bring them up to their regional manager at their next meeting.
What I like about these company shirts is that it is a symbolic and meaningful reflection of the culture Texas Roadhouse is creating. In essence, “Loving their job” is a company value that is reflected on their uniforms and they want all of their employees and their customers to know it. Visibly displaying this value on every employee while on the job has an affect on their employees in which they internalize and hopefully reflect it towards their customers. The more employees love their job, the harder they will work… and the better customer satisfaction, which is (or should be) the bottom line of every service organization.