June 16, 2009

Being a student, becoming a worker and how important is the way you look?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/glacier/

Work identities possess both an individual and a social dimension, influencing how individuals and others see their work and themselves. Identity gives people a sense of who they are and a sense of who they may become. Interestingly, a student identity is often stronger than a prospective vocational identity and people often choose to become students even in a vocational area for reasons other than a strong commitment to work in that area and even where they are so committed, their intentions may change? What are the consequences of so many people seeking work outside the sectors for which they have apparently been trained?

So links between the subject a student studies and the work they wish to do is complex, social but also deeply personal - linked to a sense of identity and 'who I am.' However, employers make choices too and are they extending the range of personal characteristics which they seek to control? 

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 for identities at work? Some employers now specify personal characteristics in lists of 'skills' they require for certain jobs. Some employers now stress their prospective employees' personal characteristics, involving, for example, '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......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'....... 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)......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).

If you want to follow this up, 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: see 'What's happening to skill?' follow this link.

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. 

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