A few days back, State Bank of India (SBI), with staff strength of nearly 2, 70,000 employees, issued a rather peculiar set of guidelines for its workers. The intention of the circular issued by the HR Department of the organisation was clearly stated, “In order to ensure that an acceptable level of decorum in the workplace is maintained, all employees should adhere to a model dress code... One of the key elements that contribute to the emotional value and image of a service brand is the way its representatives carry themselves while interacting with customers, associates and other relevant constituents. Every employee is a Brand Ambassador for the Bank and his or her appearance and demeanour have an impact on the image of the Bank.” Most of the guidelines stated in the circular were regarding dress codes for employees who have not been issued uniforms. While it is commendable that the organisation is working towards overhauling its image, a few of the guidelines spelled out by the circular border on bizarre, and might be excessively restrictive. Consider these:
- Male employees have been asked to “match their shoe colour with the belt”, and told that “the sock should ‘ideally’ complement or match the trousers”.
- The circular adds, “blazers mostly go well with contrast or same colour trousers”, and also listed the following tips, “plain ties for check shirts and ties with designs for plain shirts, suits should be from the same fabric length, and shirt sleeve should exceed the suit/blazer sleeve length by half an inch”.
- Under the social etiquette section, employees are advised to avoid belching when in meeting “as it is highly irritating”, and are also told to not slip into “common language” in a formal meeting, for it is considered unprofessional. There was no clarification, however, on what constitutes ‘common language’.
- The circular also had grooming suggestions like, “Avoid unkempt look (unshaven/ruffled hair)”; “practice adequate personal hygiene to keep bad breath/body odour away”; and “keep footwear clean at all times”.
- While the circular clearly spelt out that T-shirts, jeans and sneakers/sport shoes should not be part of the attire for men; for senior female employees, the circular mandated formal Indian or western attires.
Companies like Control
Surprisingly enough, SBI isn’t the first or the last company to spell out exhaustive and seemingly unusual guidelines for its employees. To prevent loss of goods, employees at Amazon warehouses are required to go to work without phones, watches, beverages and are also not allowed to chew gum or wear lipstick. While one might consider the Amazon case as a business necessity, others do not fall in the same category. Take Evernote for example: at the behest of the CEO, there are no telephones in the organisation, and emails are discouraged – to foster a culture of direct communication, but there is no word on how effective the move is. Employees at Starbucks are required to stand in place at the espresso bar while preparing a beverage, and not move around to speed up the process – which essentially means they cannot multitask, which defeats the purpose of speeding up the process. The internet is full of employee accounts that relate unusual, uncomfortable, counterproductive and downright bizarre company policies from all over the world. You can check some of the most unbelievable ones here and here.
SBI Circular: Taking it too far?
Ensuring a uniform dress code seems like a perfect step in the direction of cultivating a brand image and value in the mind of customer, but the circular goes well beyond that. Interestingly, no particular colour has been mentioned in the circular, but suggestions on style are aplenty. If there is no one colour for all employees to stick to, how does it matter if their shoes and belt or socks and trousers are colour coordinated? Suggestions regarding blazers and suits, their fabric and styling too seem unfounded for the same reasons – if the idea is to bring in a uniform dress code, a critical element of the same (colour) has not been accounted for. Furthermore, suggestions regarding belching might also be taking it a step too far, as no one would do it on purpose in a professional space. The suggestions on personal hygiene also seem unwarranted, for it is given – in any industry – that anyone who deals with an array of customers in a day must put his/her best foot forward.
While the circular might be working towards repainting the image of the typical government banker which has fostered in India, one needs to pause and reconsider what makes an employee smart and professional. Visual aesthetics and formal attires are undoubtedly an essential component of building a customer-friendly image, but guidelines on the same should be flexible enough to allow employees to experiment and express their individuality. Standardisation of brand and image begins with offering uniformly accessible services, and ensuring robust customer management. While the particular SBI circular in question might evoke different responses from different stakeholders, it would be opportune to follow the same with a program to ensure that employees are adequately trained to offer the “highest standard of ethics” and provide “courteous service” to its customers, as is the self-defined aim of the circular.