Contemporary Issue on Aesthetic Labour in Hospitality

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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’.

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.


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...
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