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On Uniforms, Lanyards and Keys

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

An image of a lanyard with a tag on a desk. There are keys and a watch on the desk.

Molly turned up for her shift and was surprised to find her colleagues all in the same polo shirts – true, they were bright and colourful and added a nice aesthetic with all the workers looking the same, in a way it made her think of her favourite football team the Cowboys, sort of tribal, but something here felt wrong.

She couldn’t quite understand her unease. She loved her job as a support worker. She took pride in her ability to connect with the people she worked with, both her colleagues and the individuals she supported to live independently in the community. What was it about this sudden and unexpected change that seemed wrong to her?

In a team meeting later that day the Manager enthusiastically introduced the new uniforms explaining it was a great marketing tool for the business and a way for the staff to be identified by the customers. The uniform doubled as promotion and identification, she also said it helped in the safety of the workers so they could avoid getting too close to the clients and could delineate the differences between them.

Molly felt the shift somewhere deep inside. She began to feel that she no longer belonged in this tribe or workplace.

After the meeting Molly went to meet Cheryl for their regular appointment. Today, Molly’s plan was to meet Cheryl at her home and support Cheryl to attend a medical appointment at the local medical centre. Cheryl used Molly’s assistance to ensure she attended the appointment, it was part of her own wellness plan, she found attending the medical centre really difficult even though it was essential, having Molly go with her made it achievable.

Today was different though when Molly arrived, she had a shirt on emblazoned with the service name. Molly was no longer “usual Molly”. Cheryl’s face dropped when she saw Molly. “No not today”, she told Molly. What Molly did not know was that Cheryl had chosen that service because they were not like others and did not wear uniforms. Cheryl had long ago decided that her privacy in her local community was paramount. She could not imagine walking into the medical centre with Molly today, everyone would know about the fact her insecurities meant she needed a support worker. She would not attend the appointment today. She got on the phone to cancel her engagement with the service.

Do you wear a uniform? Who wears uniforms? Police, soldiers, nurses, nuns, priests – school children. Where do you see uniforms these days? The ubiquitous use of logos has arisen – now we see uniforms on every corner – a logo here and there to market and brand and identify.

What is the purpose of a uniform today? Is it to identify, collate, separate? What else does it do? When I speak of uniforms, I’m also thinking of the lanyard, the logos, the shirts, and the cars.

More and more we use uniforms to separate us out from each other.

Some say they are the great leveller – especially in schools – but can we consider how they can also be the great divider?

Many things mark us as different from each other - our skin colour, our accent, our gender – but what is it that the uniform does that separates so powerfully?

How we feel when we see a uniform will depend on our experiences. Some will feel comforted, some terrified – instantly though, we know our place in relation to the uniform.

Why would we want to consider the use of uniforms? Does it matter? It matters to people who are on the receiving end of services – particularly those services that offer support in the community, as it did for Cheryl.

First consider the wearer of the uniform – what does it do for the wearer?

Like the Cowboys or any team or group there is a feeling of belonging and pride. Here is my tribe - the ones I identify with. It feels good because I belong. I become part of something bigger than me. The standards and expectations are set by the uniform, I know how to behave with those who are with me.

It also offers an alternate identity, where the wearer can hide, be something different – it allows the wearer to do things with a uniform that they may not do without it. Be braver; try harder; be better when part of a team or, the pride of my achievement in a profession.

As with everything, there is also a darker side. Uniforms can promote de-personalisation and objectification of people’s experiences, resulting in dehumanisation. We don’t have to go back too far in history to see how uniforms gave legitimacy to holding power over people’s lives: think of Auschwitz as an example. Now, that may seem an extreme example – but the many things we abhor as humans are the things that we humans have done to each other under the protection of a regime or a badge.

How does this relate in the context of human service or social service provision? A uniform exemplifies and amplifies the power differential between us and them. It can take “othering” to a whole new level. The construct of the social services system has its origins in helping the poor. As time progressed, it evolved into a more political exercise in changing systems and helping people navigate the systems of oppression. Now, it belongs in the consumer world of customer and client, however we frame it – human services have a risk of becoming less about the mutual hand or ear of assistance and more about the “us” and “them” of me, in power helping you, lesser than.

It’s subtle but present nonetheless and worth consideration. Perhaps, in the quest for branding, we lose sight of the unintended power constructs the uniform can convey. We may also lose sight of what might be thought of the person out and about with the “uniform” in community.

So why do we need the uniform? It’s a marker that separates me from you. Is it possible that the wearer is seeking protection from the social disadvantage, distress, and difference of the other and can therefore cognitively distance themselves?

These are questions that require our attention.

It’s not always the uniform though – we may decide to let that go to connect but we may also hold on to other signals of power – sometimes quite inadvertently.

In other blogs, we have spoken about the lanyards that we want to wear – that pass to the behind the scenes special event – the VIP pass. However, the lanyard with the name tag and electronic key in a service system can also be sign of difference and power.

Ironically, in the ways of systems of power, sometimes those without the power in the relationship will start to mimic power and wear a lanyard too, and we will defend that by saying, “it’s just a lanyard”.

Back to Molly and Cheryl, and the teaser question - thinking about Uniforms, Lanyards and Keys raises. It’s ultimately about how we see ourselves in relation to each other and consider our purpose and role when working within a social service setting.

Molly’s discomfort was about not wanting to set herself aside or different from the people she was employed to engage with.

It was her humanity and belief in the commonality of us as fellow humans that prompted her to feel the change in approach was not right for her.

Cheryl had made that decision not to work alongside someone wearing a uniform. Her identity, and how she was seen in community, was important to her.

Power constructs are forever present it is imperative that we examine if an unhelpful dynamic has unwittingly seeped into our social service offerings.

Do we dare to let go of our power status in people’s lives?

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