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Tuesday, March 16, 2004  

Business: What's red and yellow all over?

I may eventually have to return to the corporate employment. Working for oneself definitely has its limitations, most notably in regard to income. However, when I read articles about what the corporate world puts employees through, particularly those without much power, I remember why nonconformist me left it. My attire on a given day varies from jeans and tee shirt to a suit if I am doing something that makes one appropriate. But, at least, I get to decide. Workers at DHL Worldwide Express don't. And, they are paying the price, embarrassment, for a choice they never made. One of DHL's websites tells the suits' side of the story -- without describing employee reaction.

Sweden, Stockholm, February 13th, 2004 - For some six weeks, couriers and drivers within DHL Express Sweden will participate in a global trial of trousers, sweatshirts, jackets, caps etc., starting in the first week of February. The trial will also be carried out in Germany, Spain, Singapore, South Korea, South Africa, Mexico and the United States. The purpose is to evaluate the functionality, quality and design of the test collection. In total, more than 3600 DHL Express employees will be participating in this research.

Every year close to ten million customer visits are made by the couriers and drivers of DHL Express in Sweden. It is an advantage for the customer to be able to identify a courier picking up/delivering an express shipment at a glance, or a driver picking up/delivering packages and heavier goods. Apart from being practical and easy to recognize, the uniforms should also convey a message compatible with the brand.

By doing thorough research on our test collection involving couriers, drivers and even customers we stand a good chance of being able to produce corporate wear that is both uniform and attractive. The work wear needs to meet the heavy demands on functionality in different countries, but they should also give the wearer a feeling of solidarity and pride, says Lars Sundman, Managing Director, DHL Express (Sweden) AB.

The viewpoint from down on the ground is different. There is no question the new uniforms are uniform, but they are hardly attractive. "Solidarity and pride?" Please. As someone who lives in one of the eleven international test cities, I've seen the attire in person and can't help but cringe for those forced to wear it. Fashion columnist Jill Spitznass agrees.

As Michael Jackson can tell you, sometimes even the most well-intentioned makeover can go horribly wrong.

Witness the DHL Worldwide Express courier team, now sporting the alarming results of a recent corporate rebranding.

Once resplendent in navy blue and classic red, the DHL crew now greets the dawn wearing a combo of tomato red and mustard yellow. Passable hues on their own, when these colors come together some kind of chromatic alchemy occurs. It can't be helped: The first thing that comes to mind is a popular fast food chain.

"Hey, I didn't know McDonald's delivered," a fellow said to a DHL delivery guy downtown the other day, a razz that was met with stony-faced silence from the vividly dressed employee.

It is difficult not to associate a burger and side of fries with the red and yellow uniforms. An Airborne Express delivery to my door yesterday resulted in an effort not to hurt the DHL employee's feelings that I barely controlled. As soon as the door was shut, I laughed so loud I nearly dropped my package. I hope the fellow didn't hear me.

Employees have been told they can opt out of the test. A Portland delivery man says he has and others are doing so as well.

Feedback, schmeedback. Many workers aren't waiting around to hear the guilty verdict on the new design. Portland DHL employee Lew Yocom already has gone back to the gray Airborne Express duds he used to wear, saying the red and yellow get-up was getting him down.

"It got to where I couldn't do my job," says Yocom, a nine-year veteran of the company. "I didn't want to go into my stops because of what people would say. The girls at Ann Taylor were calling me Pooh Bear, and of course you get the McDonald's and the clown jokes. It's funny for a day or two, and then it's not."

However, big business rarely likes it when employees take matters into their own hands. I can't help but wonder if there is a price to pay if DHL workers rebel. Is there a black mark next to Yocom's name now? Have those fellows in Sweden been noted as troublemakers? Have DHL's employment lawyers noticed dissatisfaction and wondered if the more vocal complainers might be potential union leaders? Those are the kinds of questions disagreement between management and labor bring to my mind.

Corporate DHL says everything is copacetic. The trial is occurring now, and, if the uniforms are not successful, they will be rejected.

When the research period is over, employees will have the opportunity to give their views on materials, colour, cut, etc. The Swedish result will then be combined with the evaluation from the other seven countries, and after a complete review of all suggestions for improvement a final collection will be produced. The launch of a quality uniform that is durable, functional and brand building is scheduled for the end of 2004.

But, what is success in this context? I suspect the leadership of DHL, not lowly workers, will decide. Employee Yocom hopes the new uniforms will go away. But, they may not. Then, he will be forced to look like a kindergartener's idea of color coordination for years to come.

7:55 PM