Why do I need a dress code?

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A Q&A with Kathleen D. Pagana, Ph.D., RN

Q: Dear Nurse Pagana, My hospital is considering a dress code (as in certain colors and styles of scrubs) for nurses. I’m unhappy with this idea because I like being able to wear whatever scrubs I want. Do red polka dot vs. yellow striped scrubs really have an impact on how I perform as a nurse? —Unhappy Individualist

A: Dear Unhappy Individualist, Yes, you may be just as good at inserting a catheter wearing an evening gown as you are wearing hot pink scrubs, I understand. But how nurses dress has a bigger impact than most nurses realize. The way you dress either adds to or detracts from your professional image. It sends a message about how you see yourself and how you want to be perceived by others. Like most nurses, you probably want to be viewed as professional, intelligent and competent. Does your appearance mirror that image? Here are some ideas to think about:

  • Patients often associate appearance with trustworthiness and ability. If nurses dress too casually, patients may question their professionalism and attention to detail.
  • Does a nurse dressed in cartoon scrubs (outside of the pediatric floor) establish immediate trust, authority and credibility? Probably not!
  • Many patients complain that everyone in a clinical setting looks the same. Patients want their nurses to be clearly identifiable.
  • Family members, physicians and other members of the health care team also have trouble identifying nurses. This impacts communication.
  • Some institutions are adopting a dress code to distinguish personnel. For example, a hospital may dictate that only nurses wear one print and medical technicians wear another print.
  • Many health care systems are aiming for uniformity in dress. Wouldn’t you be surprised if, say, the copilot on your airplane was dressed in a jogging outfit? You would question an airline that permitted pilots to dress as individuals rather than as uniformed professionals.

Proper attire is important for nurses in every kind of setting. This includes hospital, clinics, meetings and conferences. Make sure your uniforms, lab coats, scrubs and shoes are clean, neat and professional.

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