Yesterday, I shared about United Airlines’ decision to loosen dress and appearance standards for front-line employees like flight attendants and gate agents beginning this fall. While many have applauded the move, I do wonder if it reveals another dangerous lurch toward individualism that we should think carefully about before celebrating.
Don’t Uniforms Imply A Uniform Look? An Open Discussion On Airline Uniforms And Individualism
At the outset, let me state that I’m genuinely not bothered by tattoos, piercings, or even nails like this:
And if allowing more individualism in the way flight attendants, gate agents and eventually pilots dress leads to kinder, gentler, more personalized, service, then I suppose that’s a far greater good.
But as a former member of the U.S. Air Force who had to abide by strict dress and appearance standards including uniforms, grooming, facial hair, tattoos, and piercings, I must point out one value in wearing uniforms is to look uniform.
Conformity has become such a bad word, but there is tremendous value in shedding your individualism and embracing the collective…that used to be progressive. The great thing about the military and working for an international airline like United is that it does become a great melting pot of people of immensely different backgrounds, united in a common goal. In the case of airlines, that is to provide safe, efficient, and caring service to passengers and clients around the world.
What should unite United Airlines is a core vision of excellence that emphasizes consistent, professional, kind service. One way that is achieved is by wearing uniforms and maintaining grooming in a way that takes the eye off the person and instead places it on the airline and the service being provided.
Of course is it more than that. What empowers gate agents or flight attendants to provide good service is not how many body piercings or visible tattoos they have, but the tools they have to work with to provide great service.
While not mutually exclusive, I would hope United (and other airlines) would make it a point to empower their employees to fix problems and in the case of flight attendants, give them the resources to provide great service onboard. So much of morale is based upon the toolkit given from which great service can more naturally be provided.
From my perspective, the idea that current dress and appearance standards promote a white, male, heteronormative worldview are not supported by the world in which we live. The USA is a uniquely individualist society, but look around the world. Look around Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The way airline employees dress…the way people dress up in general. Is that all the result of European imperialism or is the more likely answer that human notions of professionalism are actually fairly standard and the USA is now an outlier?
I tend to view the “parade of horribles” as a logical fallacy, but there are practical issues as well. Where is the line drawn on tattoos and piercings? Are those huge rings allowed? If not, why not? What about religious or politically-oriented tattoos?
All of that can (and will) be figured out, but I see the loosening of dress and appearance standards like a bandaid that fails to address the root problem: strong leadership and the tools that empower workers to work the best they can.
U.S. airline employees, especially flight attendants, tend to be very dismissive of Gulf carriers. “Oh, they fire you at age 35,” or “you just become a sex object.”
I would again push back on such a characterization. True beauty is what comes out of the heart, but one reason these Middle East and Asian flight attendants are celebrated for their beauty is not because they are younger or more attractive, but because of their carefully choreographed dress and appearance. And though everyone is inherently a unique person, they don’t look different: they look the same. They look professional. They look beautiful…and it has nothing to do with the number of wrinkles on their face.
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Ultimately, I’m not going to lose sleep over seeing how many tattoos or earrings a flight attendant or gate agent has. All I’m looking for is kind, caring service. But I’m not sure the way to achieve that goal is to promote individualism. Instead, I think there is substantial merit in promoting a collective look versus a personal one.
What do you think? Should individualism be embraced in airline uniforms? What is the end goal?