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Aesthetic Labour

Many employers are now stressing the importance of employees' personal characteristics, such as 'looking good and sounding fine'. What are the consequences of this trend?

Some employers now specify personal characteristics in lists of ‘skills’ they require for certain jobs, including 'looking good and sounding fine'. The personnel manager of a hotel was implementing changes in working practices aimed at the reception staff, but complained: 'they just won't smile.' There are issues here around the extent to which attributes are seen as separate from the person – and as ‘skills’ to be developed.

In customer-facing occupations employers may emphasise personal characteristics to such an extent that they are looking for people who are "passionate, stylish, confident, tasty, clever, successful and well-travelled" (Warhurst and Nickson, 2001, p.14). How many people does this rule out, irrespective of the skills they possess, if an employer is essentially looking for someone who will project the ‘right image’.

Grugulis et al. (2004) argue "there is an increasing tendency for organisations to manage the way their employees feel and look as well as the way they behave, so that work is emotional and aesthetic as well as (or instead of) productive (see Hochschild, 1983; Macdonald and Sirianni, 1996; Warhurst and Nickson, 2001). This development is particularly true of interactive services, such as retailing, where recruitment and training both focus on the emotions and aesthetics of the labour force deployed to deliver the service (Thompson et al., 2001). In the ‘style’ labour market of fashionable hotels and bars the appearance, deportment, accents and general stylishness of the bartender, waitress or retail assistant are part of what makes the service being offered trendy and upmarket (Nickson et al., 2001)" (p.7). Staff have to look good and sound right and recruitment and selection processes try to ensure that they do (Nickson et al., 2001). "But it is not only in this environment that grooming, dress sense, deportment, manner, tone and accent of voice and shape and size of body become vital. Workplaces as diverse as call centres, training consultants, investment banks and accountants all recruit, train and promote staff on their emotional and aesthetic ‘skills’ (McDowell, 1997; Trethewey, 1999; Anderson-Gough et al., 2000; Thompson et al., 2001). Many of these characteristics, as Warhurst and Nickson (2001) argue, are open to development and improvement through instruction. Their possession is a new facet of what it can mean to be ‘skilled’" (Grugulis et al., 2004, p.7).

Managers may seek to control employees’ "language and body posture, the length of their skirts and their hairstyles, their weight and the size of their bust, hips and thighs, the make up that they wear, the way that they shave (both faces and legs), their jewellery and shoes and the colour of their hair (Hochschild, 1983; Paules, 1991; Warhurst and Nickson, 2001; Nickson et al., 2001; Thompson et al., 2001). This list is not exclusive, nor is it uncontested. Employees can and do resist, misbehave and ignore these instructions, as much as they enthuse, co-operate and comply with them (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999; Paules, 1991). Nonetheless such detailed demands suggest that it is not only the changing definition of skill that is problematic but the site of its control. In emotional and aesthetic labour, employees’ feelings and appearance are turned into commodities and re-shaped to fit their employers’ notions of what is desirable (Putnam and Mumby, 1993; Thompson and McHugh, 2002). This process may be enjoyed by employees and may equip them with skills that advantage them both in and out of the workplace (Leidner, 1993; Nickson et al., 2001). But it may also lead to exhaustion, burnout (Hochschild, 1983; Kunda, 1992), an inability to accept or engage with emotions in the private sphere (Casey, 1995) and high levels of turnover (Leidner, 1993; Korczynski, 2001)" (Grugulis et al., 2004, pp7-8).

Grugulis et al. (2004) concludes "Ainley argues that "at rock bottom, the real personal and transferable ‘skills’ required for preferential employment are those of whiteness, maleness and traditional middle-classness" (1994, p. 80), and Nickson et al.’s (2003) study of aesthetic labour suggests that many of the particular skills in personal presentation, self-confidence, grooming, deportment and accent that Glaswegian service sector employers are seeking are liable to be linked to the parental social class, and family and educational background of the job applicants" (p. 10).

At the moment, this chapter is available on-line from the publisher's website as it serves as an introduction to the book as a whole. So for a listing of the book contents and the introductory chapter 'What's happening to skill?' follow this link.


  • Ackroyd, S. and Thompson, P. (1999) Organizational Misbehaviour, London: Sage.
  • Ainley, P. (1994). Degrees of Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
  • Anderson-Gough, F., Grey, C. and Robson, K. (2000) ‘In the name of the client: the service ethic in two professional service firms’ Human Relations 53 (9) pp. 1151 – 1174.
  • Casey, C. (1995) Work, Self and Society: After Industrialism, Routledge: London and New York.
  • Grugulis, I., Warhurst, C. and Keep, E. (2004) ‘What’s happening to skill? In Warhurst, C., Grugulis, I., and Keep, E. The skills that matter, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Hochschild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart, University of California Press: Berkeley.
  • Korczynski, M. (2001) ‘The contradictions of service work: call centre as customer-oriented bureaucracy’ in Sturdy, A., Grugulis, I. and Willmott, H. (eds.) Customer Service: empowerment and entrapment Basingstoke:Palgrave.
  • Kunda, G. (1992) Engineering Culture: control and commitment in a High-Tech corporation, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Leidner, R. (1993) Fast Food, Fast Talk: service work and the routinization of everyday life Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Macdonald, C.L. (1996) ‘Shadow mothers: nannies, au pairs, and invisible work’ in Macdonald, C.L. and Sirianni, C. (eds.) Working in the Service Society Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Macdonald, C.L. and Sirianni, C. (1996) (eds.) Working in the Service Society Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • McDowell, L. (1997) Capital Culture: gender at work in the City, Oxford: Blackwells.
  • Nickson, D., Warhurst, C., Witz, A. and Cullen, A-M. (2001) ‘The importance of being aesthetic: work, employment and service organisation’ in Sturdy, A., Grugulis, I. and Willmott, H. (eds.) Customer Service: empowerment and entrapment Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Nickson, D., Warhurst, C., Witz, A., Cullen, A-M. and Watt, A. (2003) ‘Bringing in the excluded? Aesthetic labour, skills and training in the new economy’, Journal of Education and Work, Vol 16, No 2, 185-203.
  • Paules, G.F. (1991) Dishing it Out: power and resistance among waitresses in a New Jersey restaurant, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Putnam, L. and Mumby, D.K. (1993) ‘Organisations, emotions and the myth of rationality’ in Fineman, S. (ed.) Emotion in Organisations London: Sage.
  • Thompson, P. and McHugh, D. (2002) Work Organisations: a critical introduction 3rd edition Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Thompson, P., Warhurst, C. and Callaghan, G. (2001) ‘Ignorant Theory and Knowledgeable Workers: Interrogating the connections between knowledge, skills and services’ Journal of Management Studies 38 (7) pp. 923 – 942.
  • Trethewey, A. (1999) ‘Disciplined bodies: women’s embodied identities at work’ Organization Studies 20 (3) pp. 423 – 450.
  • Warhurst, C. and Nickson, D. (2001) Looking Good, Sounding Right, London: Industrial Society.