"I've had several applicants arrive for interviews whose resumes were impressive but they had tattooed arms, facial piercings and wild hair-dos, so I didn't hire them. Should I have a written policy on professional appearances and if so, what should it contain?"

This is a two-part question because it deals with potential hires and current staff. Unfortunately, you may have let some excellent candidates with “impressive resumes” slip away because there was no office policy regarding personal appearance expectations in place.

Had there been a Personnel Manual listing office policies stating what is expected of employees, the dentist could have hired the interviewee, provided he/she is made aware of the dress code during the hiring process and agrees to follow the standards to which all employees are expected to adhere. I’ll start with pertinent information regarding a Personnel Manual’s worth, and then get into the specifics of office policy dealing with employees’ appearances.

Many dental offices acknowledge the value of having a Personnel Manual with specific policies that clearly define and set forth expectations of employers. Unfortunately, few small businesses actually have such a document in place. Similarly, dentists in private practice often do not have a Personnel Manual because they are unfamiliar with the process of publishing such a book, unique to their practice and beliefs.

A personnel manual is as much a declaration of philosophy and behavioral expectations as it is a written document that provides every employee with the same information about the rules of the workplace. Employees will know what is expected of them, and what they can expect from the employer. The handbook also serves as legal protection if an employee later claims wrongful dismissal. Keeping the handbook current is important as laws change over time.

Purchasing an office manual that is already written and requires limited modification is one way to integrate this important management tool into the practice’s operations; putting one together without a pre-formed template is another way, albeit more difficult. Whether a practice purchases and modifies a pre-written manual, or creates one from scratch, make sure the handbook entails basic fundamental elements, and that it speaks for the uniqueness of the office’s philosophy and practice of dentistry.

Begin by describing the practice’s philosophy of both dentistry and employment protocols. Upholding a fair and safe work environment along with providing equal opportunity for employment are cornerstones of proper employee management. Also, describe the principles that are the foundation of the practice’s philosophy. This may take the form of a mission or vision statement, or even a simple paragraph relating the practice’s philosophy. It is important to make clear that the personnel manual is the property of the practice. A copy is kept in an designated place in the office for easy reference, and it must not be removed from the premises.

It is prudent and sensible for any business, whether large or small, to have guidelines that help employees understand what the appropriate dress and grooming practices are for the workplace. There are several reasons for implementing these standards; such as to present a uniform and professional appearance for patients, to limit distractions caused by offensive, inappropriate, or provocative dressing, and to ensure safety while working. Remember, that employees are representatives of the practice. An employee’s personal appearance, which includes dress, grooming, personal hygiene, make-up, tattoos and piercings affect both the patients’ impression of the office and internal morale among staff. Ultimately having an enforced, nondiscriminatory, dress policy helps to promote a professional and positive working environment for all.

The next step, this is where the employer can be specific as to personal appearances, is to define office and employment policies. This section must express the expectations of the employer, such as assigning and supervising personnel, supporting positive contributions with praise, reprimanding when necessary, and changing office policies as a result of internal circumstances, competitive forces, economic conditions, or to comply with state and federal regulations. The mainstays for this section can include having a strong work ethic, being friendly and courteous to others, adhering to office policies, and working toward solutions of any grievances justly and fairly.

When detailing office and employment policies, the segment covering what is expected in regard to personal appearance standards should remain specific. Here, expectations regarding personal appearance are laid out for the employee to understand. For example, “Employees are expected to maintain a professional appearance, which includes proper grooming and dress. Visible tattoos, and facial piercings, excluding earlobes, are prohibited. Hair needs to be pulled back. Dangling or large pieces of jewelry cannot be worn as they may compromise job performance. Fingernails are to be kept short, and acrylic nails are not allowed. Make-up should be kept to a minimum. If an employee has a question in regard to the dress/appearance policy, the office manager or dentist needs to be contacted so that approval as to the dress code is given prior to the working day.”

Additional elements to consider containing in the General Office and Employment Policies section are how the office handles absenteeism and tardiness, personal time off, smoking, gum chewing, substance abuse, initial training & orientation, performance reviews, resolution protocols, sexual harassment, and serious diseases. Infection Control standards are a lengthy subject, and are usually part of another separate manual with policies and protocols centered on ensuring an aseptic work environment. Simply reference this in the employee manual and direct all issues relating to Infection Control to the separate book.

Once the manual is complete, it is wise to contact a person in the immediate area with legal experience in personnel law to help with specific questions and issues relating to this project. After formal editing and final publishing, circulate the handbook among the employees, and require them to sign a form that acknowledges they have read and agree to the policies set forth. These signed forms should be kept in the individual personnel files of each employee and updated periodically whenever a change in the manual is set forth.

In conclusion, create a dress code and appearance policy specific for your practice that promotes your style of practicing dentistry and represents your business as you see fit. If that includes not allowing body piercing and unsightly tattoos, then so be it.