The role of Aesthetic Labour in Hospitality

The shift from an industrial society to a service oriented society has brought with it many implications and thereby major changes in the workings of the various departments in an organisation like Marketing, Human Resources, Operations, etc., since the significant change is the shift from a product or manufacturing centred focus to service or a more human centred focus. And this increasingly has brought the realisation in organisations that their employees are increasingly a part of their service product especially in the Hospitality industry (Kotler et al, 2006). This evolution of the thought process has lead to the aesthetics of the labour in relation to the organisation (Nickson et al, 2003).

Aesthetic labour can be defined as “a supply of embodied capacities and attributes possessed by the workers at the point of entry into employment. Employers then mobilise, develop and commodify these capacities and attributes through the processes of recruitment, selection and training, transforming them into competencies and skills which are aesthetically geared to producing a ‘style’ of service encounter” (Warhurst et al 2000, p. 1). It is clear from the definition that aesthetics of labour is the development and manipulation of embodied competencies of an employee by the employer to bring about product differentiation.

The labour of aesthetics is important in the materialization of the style of the aesthetics of the service organisation and particularly the ‘style’ of the service experience encountered by the customers. The increasing mobilization of aesthetic labour is particularly evident in the style labour market of design and image drive retail and hospitality organisations. This phenomenon is been around from the 1980s when the organisations sought market differentiate through designer interior and increasingly through the ‘making-up’ of their employees, as employers realised that they are an integral part of the service encounter (Nickson et al, 2003).

The two major constituents of aesthetic Labour which organisation use to differentiate their ‘human product’ from their competitors are innate skills and competencies and induced or external skills and competencies. Innate Skills and competencies are the embodies capacities and assets of the individual which constituents the personality and communication skills of a person or ‘soft’ skills of a person (Nickson et al, 2005), these skills are especially important in the airline industry for the selection of flight stewardesses along with physical aspects like weight, height, teeth, complexion and facial regularities, they are also supposed to project a warm and friendly disposition and an enthusiastic spirit (Hoschild 1983, cited in Spiess & Waring 2005).

This selection of candidate on the basis of soft skills is a highly volatile debate as aesthetic labour can be misunderstood or purposefully sexualised because mostly female stewardesses are chosen who fit the appropriate physical requisites of the organisation and even the male flight attendants are selected for their appearances (Spiess & Waring, 2005). Organisations also use marketing strategies that sexualise labour through advertisement and catch phrase like ‘There’s a new girl in town.

She’s twice the fun and half the price’. Air Asia Advertisement published in a Singaporean newspaper (Streats, 3 December, 2003 cited in Speiss & Waring, 2005), to attract their predominately male passengers. Another instance of sexualised aesthetic labour is the restaurant chain Hooters which employ voluptuous young women to project as they say their ‘Florida beach girl look’ as they believe that sex sell (Nickson et al, 2003).

The other is the external or induced skills which are the uniforms and the training rendered to employees which constitute body language, manners and phraseology required to address their consumer, these are generally induced on the employees to standardise their service and also to differentiate themselves from their competition through their projected image, this also helps to tangibilise service product for the customers (Solomon, 1985).  Aesthetic labour is practised in three main domains: at the pre-entry (i.e. at the recruitment and selection stage), at the internal domain (during training, the managerial and working practices emphasised), and lastly external (the working practices and the actual service encounter) (Nickson et al, 2000).

Pre-entry- Employer-Employee: Recruitment and Selection at this level aesthetic labour is most predominate as criteria for selecting the right kind of candidates and weeding out the inappropriate ones are exercised (Nickson et al, 2000). The selection criteria clearly stated in many advertisements for hospitality position which specify the aesthetic attributes required, for instance good personality with good communications skills is a regular feature in columns.

This trend is predominate in the hospitality industry where aesthetic skills of a person is given precedence over technical skills, especially for front-line personnel, as many personnel manager feel technical training can be offered to them on-the-job but aesthetic skills can not be acquired only developed (Nickson et al, 2000; 2005). Because of these aesthetic skills prerequisites many potential employees are discouraged and self-select as they feel that they are not adequately skilled to apply for a job in a particular organisation (Nickson et al, 2005).

Internal- Employer-Employee, Employee-Employee: Training, managerial practises and working practises this entails the continuous development and moulding of the employees after their recruitment in to the organisations. Because employers have realised that apart from training in technical aspects of the organisation’s trade, an on going training in aesthetic skill improvement is required to fine tune the overall impression of the employee on the customer as employees are ‘walking billboards’ (Zeithaml & Bitner, 2003) for their organisation and need to project the image of the organisation effectively.

From this reason many organisation have set training modules in personal grooming, personality development and body language with the help of external consultants (Nickson et al, 2005; Bryson & Wellington, 2001). Employer have come to the realisation that the uniform alone can not project the right image of the organisation if the grooming of the individual is below expectation, so therefore great emphasis is paid by employer on the outward appearance of the employees with proper grooming standards set by the organisations for both men and women to follow like minimal jewellery, make-up skills, hair cuts, regulations on acceptable body art, etc., some organisation have also set up grooming committee to monitor the grooming standards of the employees and incentives have been are set up to encourage this, like the best groomed employee of the month, etc (Nickson et al, 2000).

Apart from the personality fine tuning staff also receive training in ‘how to approach the guest’ skills through development of body language and phraseology to used and to be able to judge the body language of the customer and adapt to the situation accordingly because self-presentation of the employee is all part of the service product (Nickson et al, 2003). These skills and training are increasingly being embraced by organisations outside the ‘style’ industry as well, for instance, by accounting firms like Ernst and Young, financial institutions like banks, and including automobile manufacturers like Audi that arrange for personality development training programs for their employees. Since effective self-presentation is increasingly becoming a requisite for career growth and development as they require their employees to project a desired image to their clients (Bryson & Wellington, 2001).

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