Aesthetic Skills | Advantages and Disadvantages

Keywords: aesthetic skills, aesthetic skill employment


It was a common perception that in the new century, there will be an increase demand for high skill level. This level of skills will thus be demanded because of the nature of modern technologies (Ashton and Green 1996). However, fundamental changes have taken place over the last two decades by the growing tendency to label personal characteristics, attitudes as skills. This presents a grave implication for skill development and definition. Ainley (1994), Payne (1999) and Nickson et al (2003), points out that the current trend in redefining skill have a significant implication on the reinforcement of the labour market (Warhurst 2004).

This description of aesthetic skills also took a new form with job descriptions, recruitment methods and interview incorporating social and aesthetic skills (Crenin 2003). Following this, the meaning of skills is broader than in the past when it was equated to technical know-how of craft workers or scientist. Today, the definition of skill includes social and aesthetic skills (appearance, accent and deportment) (European Industrial Relations Observatory on-line 1999).

Aesthetic skills emerged due to structural shift in employment. This industrial shift from manufacturing to service sector led to the need for customers focused orientation. This increase mobilization of aesthetics is seen in the service sectors with particular reference to retail and hospitality industry. Since the 1980’s, this sector sort ways of differentiating their service through design and embodied disposition of employees (Du gay 1996). Even with the growing literature on aesthetic labour, the importance of stylized workplace still awaits further explanation.

This essay will briefly discuss the significance of skill and development of aesthetic skills. Following this trend, it will further access the sectors particular interest in aesthetic skills and a critical assessment of aesthetic skills with evidence of its preference by service sector employers. As part of the discussion, difficulty faced by employees with regards to aesthetics will also be consider with a final conclusion on the need to consider certain skill demands.


The concept of skills has been complex, elusive and hard to define (Grugulis 2007). Skill a century ago was associated with manual exercise of a given trade or occupation. This term has further changed in the growing concern for social skills and personal attributes (Keep; Bach 2005). Some commenters however argued that there is a need to move beyond the traditional concept of skills. This shift has taken place in modern societies who have experienced a move to the service sector. This has resulted in front-line jobs which require emotional and aesthetic skills (Lloyd and Payne 2008). Similarly, Cockburn (1983) suggested that skills can either be said to reside in a person, job or in the setting. The skill in a person acquired through education, training and experience. This is argued by human capital theorist as essential, and individual investment in them is necessary to make them more employable. There is also skill in a job needed to carry out a particular job. Finally, skills in a setting result in individuals with a common interest protect themselves collectively. Furthermore, Buchanan et al (2004) argue that skill component can be technical, behavioural and cognitive. This has to do with skill been associated with labour power, personal qualities or training. Whilst these skills are useful, the nature of the embodiment of various attributes in an individual is worth considering. These embodiments known as aesthetic skills are becoming more important in the debate of the changing nature of skills.

Aesthetic labour entails the mobilization and commodification of embodied disposition (Bourdieu 1984). These dispositions possessed by the employee are further transformed by the employer through selection and training to create a given style suitable for its customers. Moreover, Nickson et al (2003) describes aesthetic skills as attributes possessed by an individual at the point of entry into an organisation. They include attributes like looking good, sounding right, body shape and composure. Employers seek workers who possess such skills to fit their goals and also appeal to their customers.

In relation to personal aesthetics, Hopfl (2000) argued that cultivation of appearance is not a recent invention. She noted the interest of society of Jesus- the Jesuits in the 16th century on people with good appearance and verbal facility (Nickson et al 2003). In a similar vein, in 1930’s, air hostesses had a prescription on how they should look, behave with particular reference to grooming and poise training (Tyler and Taylor 2000). Likewise Kinchin (1999) also gave a description of the famous designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He worked with Minscranston to create the perfect tea room staffed with selected pretty waitresses wearing mackintosh uniforms. This demonstrates that interest on aesthetic skills has being around for a while. Although the focus on aesthetic skills is mainly in the service sector, the manufacturing sector can also be said to be involved in product aesthetic.

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Aesthetic Skills in the Service Sector

The services sector in UK account for around three quarters of all jobs with retail and hospitality sector providing nearly 17% of total employment (Working Future 2004-2014). Service organisations are constantly interested in modifying their services to achieve a competitive advantage. This is as a result of a growing awareness of customer sovereignty has created a particular effect in the service sector. This awareness has led to several managerial initiatives aimed at maximising service quality, customer satisfaction and business competitiveness. The implication is the integration of employees as part of the product being offered to customers (Sturdy et al 2001). Successful organisations like Disney, Ritz-Carlton and Marriott all have a strong reputation for their employee roles in meeting customer expectation. As emotional skills are subject to managerial control, so also is aesthetics skills which is overall physical attribute of the employee.

Studies have shown three categories of skills essential for employees providing service to customers. These skills include technical, social and aesthetic skills (Lundberg and Mossberg 2008). These studies emphasize the need for aesthetic skill for front-line employee especially within the hospitality and retail sector. Their interaction with customers creates an impression of the service quality. This was also noted by Bowen and Morris (1995) who argued that sales are not increased by menu design but by the front-line employees. They emphasised that although the physical aspect of the service like interior design, layout, food or products displayed are essential, the attitude and makeup of employees create an impression in the mind of customers.

However, although aesthetic skills are seen in the service sector, the manufacturing sector is also interested in aesthetics. This aesthetics has to do with their product quality which creates an impression on their consumers. While the service sector renders service to create their competitive advantage, the aesthetic of a product differentiates it from competitors.

Conceptualizing (arguments for) Aesthetic Skills

Approach on the study of interactive service was mainly dominated by Hochschild’s (1983) study on emotional labour which was further reviewed by Bolton (2005). His study was insightful in the study of workplace emotions, management of emotions and emotions required at the workplace. However, an analytical double squeeze is occurring with other soft skills been recognised even when they had always existed. For instance, Bain (2001) study noted the attempt of US call centre employers to train employees whose accent were undesirable (Warhust and Nickson 2009). In line with this, several studies have been undertaken to portray employer’s interest in aesthetic skills.

The work of Mills (1971) on sales girls used the word ‘the charmer’ for one who attracts customers with modulated voice and stance. Also Lowe (1991) in her work on retailing and local economic development noted the importance of appearance and image in the recruitment and selection process of retailers (Sturdy et al 2001). Additionally, Nickson et al (2001) research into the fashionable and hospitality sector in Glasgow showed an existence of the style labour market. Employers needed people who could be smart, presentable and stylish; who once hired could be groomed to enhance these attributes. Also in a study on Elba Hotel, a manger commented that

‘we do not actually look for people with experience because we felt that was not particularly important. We wanted people that had a personality, more than the skills because we felt we could train people to do their job’ (Witz et al 2003).

However, aesthetic skills and competencies are also becoming essential in other professions. Accounting firms like KPMG, Ernst and Young hire image consultants to advice their professional staff on aesthetics. Also, the law society published guidelines on the way solicitors should dress (Grugulis 2007). In relation to this, MacDowell’s (1997) study on investment banks, showed how employees were expected to dress in a sexy and attractive way. Also Delta Airlines provide a description for flight attendants on expected weight and anyone who goes above this will face disciplinary procedures. Likewise, Glo telecommunication Plc in Nigeria is known for recruiting light skin ladies within a specific age range. The new recruits are expected to meet with the CEO who approves their appointment based on aesthetics requirements. Finally, an examination of 100 human resources professional in the US responsible for hiring in the hospitality sector, rated appearance and good attitude high (Martin and Groove 2002).

The graphs below show the move towards aesthetic skills seen in the 2006 Skills at Work Survey. Fig 3.3 presents a histogram on frequency of jobs using generic skills in varying degree. From the table below, aesthetic and emotional skills were 52% and 65% of jobs respectively. Also table 3.4a shows the distribution of these skills according to gender and job status. The female dominated in emotional skills and were less in aesthetic skills. This further shows the increase awareness of aesthetic skills and the gender focus.

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Interestingly, most employers are not only looking for aesthetics and competency but also engage in remoulding employees to fit within their ideal image. Organisations are set to deliver exceptional services to gain a competitive advantage. To maintain consistency, some have replaced certain services with technology. Most style industry like retail has gone on to commodify their front-line employees in other to create a specific image (Dutton et al 2004). Commodification here can be seen as a process by which a service or person acquires an exchange value. It is no surprise as organisations daily commodify front-line employees to distinguish themselves. Certain corporations like IBM promote a culture of innovation; future shop employs salespeople who will impress consumers while GAP hires people with the company look.

However, it is important to note that the value attached to a particular mode of embodiment can change over time (Shilling 1993). For instance, the embodiment required by retail stores two decades ago is not the same presently. This suggests that corporate production of aesthetic labour could be remoulded and refurbished over time within a specific institution. Also the aesthetics required for employees may differ between industries. The aesthetic skill required in a Standard Chartered bank may differ from Tesco supermarket. This implies that aesthetic skills cannot be separated from the organisation involved.

Notwithstanding the positive perception on aesthetic skills and they its importance for front-line employees, certain studies have also shown its negative effect. This negative effect influences both skills definition and employee perception.

Counter perspective on aesthetic skills

In contrast to the positive views on emergence of aesthetic skills in the style industry, Bell (2007) in his work on post- industrial society regard these changes in skills as a degradation of work which reflects a society based on fabrication to intellectualism. He further used the ‘game’ metaphor to describe the industrial era which he saw as a fabrication of nature and the post-industrial era as a game between persons. Being a game entails that the success of each participant depended on their preparation and positioning. It is further argued that the winner of the game or one said to possess the needed aesthetic skills may not be the most skilled. Nickson et al (2003) study of the style sector in Glasgow showed that over 50% of the jobs were filled mainly by people from the middle- class background unlike their counterparts from a lower background. Drawing from this and referring back to the game theory, it will be difficult to ascertain if people from middle-class background are more skilled than those from a lower background.

In view of this, Gorz (1982) further argues that professionalism or interpersonal skills as a means of employment expansion is to the detriment of our day to day culture. Subsequently, Mobius and Rosenblay (2008) in their study argued that beauty or aesthetics skill does not contribute to actual productivity. The physical appearance of an employee does not predict their performance standard or level of contribution to an organisation. Furthermore, Zeithaml and Bitner’s (2003) in their view argue that the focus on aesthetic skills is a way of making employees become a walking billboard for customers.

Relatively, although the need for aesthetic skills are increasing argued, its emphasis has been seen to affect both prospective and already employed workers.

Aesthetic Skills implication on Employees

Subsequently, they tend to be problems arising from emphasis on aesthetics which not only affect prospective employees but also already existing ones. The act of Discrimination can be a major problem especially within the service sector which place emphasis on aesthetic skills. Most organisations in the style labour market have a specific criterion for recruitment. Employees below such aesthetic standards may be filtered out during the recruitment process. Practices like enclosure of passport during application process or to make a video of them which is required by Multi-Choice South Africa can be seen as discriminatory. Likewise, Nickson et al (2003) study on Glasgow service sector uncovered the aesthetic skill required by the organisation. For instance, personal grooming and accent could be due to social class or educational background of the employee (Warhurst 2004). This was further emphasized in Bourdieu’s concept of habitus which refers to mannerism acquired through childhood. He argues that middle class members are privileged to cultivated certain sophisticated taste and preferences which could be a disadvantage to people from a lower class (Williams and Connell 2010).

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Discrimination may also arise within the work place. Warhurst (2001) study in a bank, showed how a lady lost her job after several weeks. Although she had the necessary skills required to do the job, her manager felt she was not good looking. Also, in scenario Delta Airline where the air hostess is sanctioned if she gained above the stipulated body weight. Such references to the aesthetic skills can be detrimental to the productivity and performance of employees with the needed talents.

Also, social exclusion may also be seen amongst prospective workers. This exclusion can occur through discriminatory practices by the employer, self-exclusion and a mismatch of training needs and supply (Nickson et al 2003). Social exclusion is structural facilitated by factors like discrimination and unemployment. This may result in the prospective employee desisting from applying for a specific job due to the aesthetical requirements even when they have the needed skills for the job.

Furthermore, the need for employers to commodify and remould employees to meet customers’ needs can also expose front-line employees to harassment. For instance, employees required to dress in a given fashion may face unwanted sexual behaviour from customers thereby endangering their lives. This could also result in low self-esteem and several psychological problems. Most employers take aesthetic appeal to a level which could be morally wrong. Leo’s (1996) study of ‘Bazooms’ showed how employees were made to sign a sexual harassment policy which could be to their disadvantage


In conclusion, the study has pointed out different views and conception on the nature and consequences of aesthetic skills. A range of instances was seen from sectors where employers emphasis on its use. Appreciating this range also opens up the need to ensure that emphasis on aesthetic skills are structured in the right direction. It is important to note that there is still a gap existent. This gap is as a result of mismatch between the skills employers require and what employees can offer. This gap can also be from the training programs available to equip employees with employable skills. Manufacturing companies like was early stated although interested in the aesthetics of their products, engage in research and training to achieve these objectives. To gain and sustain the need for aesthetic skills, certain positive actions need to be taken. This brings in the question of training for needed skills. Training could be formal or informal with guidance from others to meet certain skill needs, meet legislative requirement or training of prospective employees (Bach 2005). To address this training need, certain government initiatives were set up to address the need for training. Tessa Jowell, then UK minister responsible for New Deal announced that New Dealers will be given certain personal presentation courses (Nickson et al 2003). This government initiative shows an implicit need to incorporate aesthetic training to make prospective employees more employable. Training is essential to equip employees in carrying out their task, preparing for future jobs and addressing the problem of skill shortage. This was argued by Keep (2005) as the litmus test on which other managerial practices are gauged (Redman and Wilkinson 2001).

However, although aesthetic skills are essential for front-line employees, it should not replace technical and social skills but complement them (Nickson et al 2003). An employer should not only recruit workers aesthetically appealing to customers but also consider the social and technically aspect of the job. The service offered incorporates both the atmosphere, the technics involved and the manner by which it was offered.

Finally, although employers especially in the service sector, have seen aesthetic skills as a way of gaining comparative advantage, they should be conscious of its effect on employees and also they ability to attract potential talents in the future. Also the legal consequences of their action is essential avoid any legal procedure which will not only be financially demanding but can ruin the image it has built. For instance, Yanowitz v. L’Oreal USA Inc, 116 P. 3d 1123 (Cal. 2005), was a case of a female person was responsible for managing the regional team. She was instructed by her manager to fire a sales assistant because she was black and unattractive. He expressed his delight for fair-skinned blond ladies and asked her to recruit people with such personality. The court held that such act was discriminatory and the plaintiff was compensated (Silverglate et al 2011)

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