Contemporary Issue on Aesthetic Labour in Hospitality - Sample Essay

Service jobs now account for around three quarters of all jobs in the UK, with retail and hospitality alone providing nearly five million jobs (Hospitality Training Foundation, 2003; University of Warwick, 2004). Organization in the hospitality industry vary enormously, ranging from first class and luxury hotels providing extravagant, full 24-hour service to the more homely comforts of a bed and breakfast establishment; from fast food restaurants to Michelin starred restaurant. In turn, the jobs provided by these organizations demand a variety of skills and attributes from those employees interacting with customers.

Increasingly, though, there is an appreciation that employees in these jobs not only provide desired levels of service in terms of responding to customers in a friendly and sociable manner but can also be part of the branding of service companies by becoming, in words of Zeithaml and Bitner (2003, 318), ‘walking billboards’. Witz, Warhurst and Nickson (2003: 44) point out that, for many companies, employees have become part of this branding exercise, with ‘aesthetic labourers … the animate component of the material culture that makes up the corporate landscape’.

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Aesthetic labour is a concept based on the notion that employers in parts of the service industries described as the ‘style labour market’ (Nickson, Warhurst and Dutton, 2004: 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 (Warhurst and Nickson, 2005). The genesis of aesthetic labour as a concept lays in early 1990s of newspaper job advertisements that stipulated the attractiveness of applicants as recruitment and selection criteria in the hospitality industry.

The term ‘aesthetic labour’ is analytically complex. It refers to the hiring of people with certain capacities and attributes that favourably appeal to customers and which are then developed through training and/ or monitoring. It has become translated in the popular imagination as those people who are employed on the basis of ‘looking good’ and/ or ‘sounding right’. In its tabloidized form, along with sexism, racism and ageism, ‘lookism’ is now offered as one of the key issues of the contemporary workplace (Oaff, 2003).

Further analysis of the definition of aesthetics reveals another close relation of the spiritual self with aesthetic labour. The definition proposed by Greek philosopher aisthanomai meaning “perception by mean of the senses and danaher, shiprato and webb (2000: 161) cite “the art of the self”. The constituent of the spiritual essence of self constitute the mind, emotion, senses which are spiritual aspect in the formation of personality, attitude and appearance apparently expressed in the process of self presentation.

This is the relative aspect of the spiritual self, manifesting aesthetic presentation of self. The definition clearly implies development of self is an art associated with the mind. LOCATING AND EXTENDING THE EVIDENCE FOR AESTHETIC LABOUR In hospitality, organizations too have been concerned with their workers’ labour of aesthetic both in the past and the present. The mobilization of this labour is increasingly a corporate strategy, less ad hoc and more systematic, for some hospitality employers, featuring in their hiring and management of employees.

Aiming to portray a company image and create an appealing service encounter for the customers, employers in hospitality are increasingly drawing upon the corporeal skills of their workplace. Employees, for example, are hired because of the way they look and talk; once employed, staff are instructed how to stand whilst working, what to wear and how to wear it and even what to say to customer. Aesthetic labour is the mobilization, development and commodification of embodied dispositions. These disposition, are form of embodied capacities and attributes, are to an extent possessed by worker at the point of entry to employment.

However, and importantly, employers then mobilize, develop and commodify these dispositions though processes of recruitment, selection, training, monitoring, discipline and reward, reconfiguring them as skills intended to produce a style of service encounter that appeals to the senses of customers, most usually visually or aurally. In other words, distinct modes of worker embodiment are organizationally prescribed and produced for corporate benefit, with these workers becoming ‘aesthetic labours’.

RECRUITMENT, SELECTION AND TRAINING THE AESTHETIC LABOUR Generally for much interactive service work, studies consistently report high levels of informality in recruitment and selection, including things such as word of mouth, referrals and casual callers, especially in the hospitality industry. (Lockyer and Scholarios, 2004) Moreover, in customer service work, recruitment and selection is more likely to be based on people’s social and aesthetic skills rather than technical skills (Scottish Centre for Employment Research, 2004).

Thus, managers’ preference for recruitment and selection in service work has tended to focus of the attitude and appearance of applicants, or their personality and increasingly their image and self-presentation. The trend for employers to choose staff based on their personal appearance and speech is particularly prevalent in the rapidly expanding service sector, where workers usually have direct contact with the public.

For example, in a survey of skill needs in hotels, restaurants, pubs and bars, 85 percent of employers ranked personal presentation and above initiative, communication skills or even ability to follow instructions. Additionally, jobs ads for the hospitality sectors regularly ask for people who are stylish, outgoing, attractive or trendy and well-spoken and of smart appearance (Worklife Report, 2001). But as the economy shifts toward “high touch” jobs the trend is spreading to the wider job market.

More and more employers are looking for staff who are pleasing to the eye and ear and who reflect their company image (Worklife Report, 2001). The employers believed that having staff that look good and/or sound right not only helped companies create a distinct image on the high street but also provided competitive advantage for their companies in the crowded hospitality industries. The study revealed that companies in the service sector desired and developed employees who could become the physical embodiment of the image and personality of their companies.

As one respondent stated about her company’s recruitment and selection, they want: ‘… people that look the part … fit in with the whole concept of the hotel’ (Nickson et al. , 2001: 180). On a practical level, this strategy, featuring a ‘style of service’ is intend to have workers create competitive advantage for employers in often highly competitive markets either by simply positively appealing to the senses of customer-by having pleasing looking staff-or by embodying the prescribed corporate image-employees as ‘walking billboard’.

To affect this possibility, employers need to regulate the sight and/ or sound and their workers (most obviously). This regulation also has a conceptual dimension, for a double shift has occurred as services have displaced manufacturing. The first and most cited shift is a quantitative one: the increase in the number of jobs now provided by services. The second shift is qualitative and less appreciated: the nature of work with service jobs has change. In hospitality, employers seek employees with personal characteristics likely to make them act spontaneous and perform effectively.

Soft skills or self-presentation skills are more important selection criteria than technical skills for employers (Scottish Centre for Employment Research, 2004). To discern such characteristics and attributes most employers from the surveyed organisation relied on the so-called ‘class trio’ of application forms and/ or CVs, interviews and references. The interview remains a popular method with manager and applicants alike as it is simple, quick and cheap-despite reliability concern.

In recognizing the labour of aesthetics and its importance to employers, academics are playing catch up. Employers, even if not a corporate strategy of aesthetic labour, want presentable employees with aesthetic appeal. In hospitality, there is a clear pattern of employers’ skill demands. Jackson et al. (2002) point out in their analysis of sales and personal services’ job advertisements that the skills stated as necessary by employers are social skills and personal characteristics’.

Likewise, a recent examination of nearly 100 human resource professionals in the USA responsible for hiring entry-level hospitality industry employees revealed that the top two criteria were: ‘pride in appearance’ and ‘good attitude’ (Martin and Grove, 2002) The emergence of these new skill raise a number of issue about training: firstly where aesthetic skills are formed; secondly if and if so how, such skills may be accredited and trained. All organizations train staff. Most of this training is centred on that mandated, and for all employees: health and safety for example. Such training is a feature of the hospitality industry.

Beyond that which is mandatory, other than for management and professional staff, training is relatively poor at least in UK. Training for part-time workers, who feature heavily in the hospitality workplace, is particular weak. With the decline of manufacturing and the rise in service jobs, and the demised of training featuring physical dexterity and technical ‘know how’, where it does occur the training emphasis has also shifted. Training is provided in customer service skills, instructing employees in body language, verbal interaction with customer (what to say and how to say it) and dress codes and uniform standards.



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