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Aesthetic Labour

Looking Good, Sounding Right

Updated August 2 2006 - 'Aesthetic labour' is a concept based on the notion that employers in parts of the service industries described as the 'style labour market' (Nickson et al, 2004, p.3), such as boutique hotels, designer retailers and style cafes, bars and restaurants, require 'aesthetic skills' in addition to social and technical skills from their workers.

Dennis Nickson, Chris Warhurst and Eli Dutton of Strathclyde University, authors of Aesthetic Labour and the Policy-Making Agenda: Time for a Reappraisal of Skills, have examined the trend for recruiters to select staff with self-presentation skills in preference to experience or technical skills. These skills allow the chosen staff to 'look good' and 'sound right' to customers. They encompass:

  • body language
  • dress sense and style
  • personal grooming
  • voice and accents

Nickson et al argue that aesthetic skills are becoming key requirements in interactive service work but this trend has not been appreciated or analyzed by policy makers. Their study focused on Glasgow, which is reinventing itself as a post-industrial city where tourism and retail jobs are replacing those lost in manufacturing. Services now account for 80% of the city's jobs. This is a change seen in many other formerly industrial cities throughout the developed world.

The authors highlight the differences between services - particularly those that are style-conscious - and manufacturing:

  • Services are produced and consumed simultaneously
  • Service workers and customers interact directly
  • Service employees are 'part of the product'
  • Service encounters between workers and customers are 'intangible, continent, spontaneous and variable'

This means that effectiveness of service transactions depend to some extent on how employees 'come across': on how their moods, appearance, demeanour and personality are perceived by customers. While some employers have tried to replace this uncertainty through the use of technology (e.g. scripted call-centre encounters, automated systems, etc.), with somewhat mixed results, others have focused on training employees to deliver the employer brand image. The latter process requires the tight management and monitoring of employees' behaviour and responses or 'emotional labour'. The third alternative is to recruit and select 'oven-ready' employees, those with the right skills and attitudes to do the job almost immediately, through competency-based selection procedures.

This assumption that 'looking good' and 'sounding right' are skills that cannot easily be trained into people challenges the conventional understanding of 'soft skills'. Recruitment strategies based on this notion could lead to an increase in potential discrimination, but the authors believe that it would be more effective to create impression management training programmes than to ignore or condemn the trend. They argue that ‘aesthetic labour' is here to stay. They conclude that other businesses, outside the 'style labour market', also see that recruiting staff with aesthetic skills leads to a competitive advantage.

Amongst relevant findings in this and an earlier report from the same team are:

  • A survey of skills needs in hotels, restaurant, pubs and bars, indicated that 85% of employers ranked personal presentation and appearance in third place - above initiative, communication skills or even ability to follow instructions
  • Glasgow employers rated technical skills twenty-third out of twenty-four as criteria for recruitment and selection
  • In January 2000, the Government announced that all New Dealers would be offered personal presentation skills
  • Job advertisements for the hospitality and retail sectors frequently ask for people who are ‘stylish’, ‘outgoing’, ‘attractive’ or ‘trendy’ and ‘well spoken and of smart appearance’
  • A 1996 survey of recruitment consultants indicated that strong regional accents - particularly those of Liverpool and Birmingham - were viewed negatively
  • Research in Glasgow shows that employers are, to a considerable extent, recruiting on the basis of physical appearance or accent.

Chris Warhurst said:"Aesthetics have always been important to companies and to certain groups of employees. Politicians, managers, professionals and city types recognise the career benefits of dressing for success. And the name and visual style of an organisation are sometimes the most important factors in making it appear unique.

"What is startling is the application of highly prescriptive aesthetic values in the wider job market. The danger is that many people in deprived areas are being denied work because of a lack of cultural capital. Take Glasgow as an example, 50 per cent of jobs are now filled by commuters from the middle class suburbs. This situation is likely to be repeated in similar urban restructuring economies, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle."

Examples of this kind of discrimination highlighted by the authors’ include:

* A supermarket check-out girl sent home by her boss to shave her legs so she wouldn’t ‘put customers off’
* A pregnant sales assistant who was sacked for becoming ‘too fat and ugly’
* A male off-shore oil worker who was dismissed for being too fat

Richard Reeves, director of Futures at The Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation) said:"In the service-crazy US, the reality of aesthetics has been accepted for decades. Charities exist to take cast-off clothes from professional women to help their jobless counterparts get work. We Brits are traditionally more squeamish about admitting that how you look, dress, talk - or even smell - might be as important as your GCSE results.

"Not everyone can enter the style labour market and, of course, not everyone would want to. But as the economy shifts towards "high touch" jobs, the premium on presentation is rising. A key task for government is to reconcile these commercial imperatives with those of fairness and social justice. Employers need to tread carefully too. Aesthetic labour should be about great service, not great teeth."



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