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12 February 2024

IS report highlights dangers of social exclusion as UK bosses increasingly opt for staff who look and sound the part

In today's increasingly style-obsessed society, a growing number of UK companies have acknowledged the pulling power of accessorised employees and are opting for staff who reflect their company image. But Futures at The Industrial Society warns employers not to let their desire for employees who look or sound the part blind them to the importance of equal opportunities or to customer demand for good service.  

In a new Industrial Society report Looking good, sounding right: style counselling in the new economy, Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson of Strathclyde University examine the emerging trend for bosses - particularly in the rapidly expanding service sector - to choose staff for their self-presentation skills rather than technical skills or experience.  

They say that Government training policy must urgently address this demand, or risk the creation of an employment underclass who don't meet the 'aesthetic'' standards of prospective employers. 

The report agrees that the rise in 'aesthetic labour' increases the potential for discrimination, but argues that creating training initiatives which address these needs is a more realistic approach to social inclusion than ignoring or condemning them - options which could hamper economic competitiveness and social mobility.


'Aesthetic labour is here to stay. Middle class concerns about social engineering - what might be termed the Eliza Doolittle syndrome - should not be allowed to cloud the issue. Equipping unemployed people with aesthetic skills enhances their self-confidence and, importantly, their employability. Given this reality, why should middle class professionals and politicians be the only ones to make use of the image-makers?'

The report focuses on the Glasgow experience but, as the research shows, employer demand for people who can embody their company ethos extends across the UK. It includes more prosaic retailers and hospitality companies - for example online banks who want prudent sounding people and B&Qs recruitment drive for older staff - as well as designer retailers, boutique hotels and style bars and restaurants.  

         In a survey of skills needs in hotels, restaurant, pubs and bars, 85 per cent of employers ranked personal presentation and appearance in third place, above initiative, communication skills or even the ability to follow instructions

         Glasgow employers ranked technical skills 23rd out of 24 as criteria for recruitment and selection

         In January 2000, the Government announced that all New Dealers will be offered personal presentation skills

       Job adverts for the hospitality and retail sectors regularly ask for people who are 'stylish', 'outgoing', 'attractive' or 'trendy' and 'well spoken and of smart appearance'.

     A 1996 survey of recruitment consultants suggested that strong regional accents are viewed negatively, especially those of Liverpool and Birmingham.

   Research in Glasgow, where services account for 84 per cent of jobs and where an aesthetics skills training course for the long-term unemployed is currently being piloted, shows that employers are, to a large extent, recruiting on the basis of physical appearance or accent.

Chris Warhurst says: "Aesthetics have always been important to companies and to certain groups of employees. Politicians, managers, professionals and city types recognise the career benefits of dressing for success. And the name and visual style of an organisation are sometimes the most important factors in making it appear unique.

  "What is startling is the application of highly prescriptive aesthetic values in the wider job market. The danger is that many people in deprived areas are being denied work because of a lack of cultural capital. Take Glasgow as an example, 50 per cent of jobs are now filled by commuters from the middle class suburbs. This situation is likely to be repeated in similar urban restructuring economies, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle."

 Examples of just this sort of discrimination highlighted by the authors' research include:

          A supermarket check-out girl who was sent home by her manager to shave her legs so she wouldn't 'put customers off'

         A pregnant sales assistant sacked for becoming 'too fat and ugly'

         A male off-shore oil worker dismissed for being too fat.

 Richard Reeves, director of Futures at The Industrial Society says: "In the service-crazy US, the reality of aesthetics has been accepted for decades. Charities exist to take cast-off clothes from professional women to help their jobless counterparts get work. We Brits are traditionally more squeamish about admitting that how you look, dress, talk - or even smell - might be as important as your GCSE results.  

"Not everyone can enter the style labour market and, of course, not everyone would want to. But as the economy shifts towards "high touch" jobs, the premium on presentation is rising. A key task for government is to reconcile these commercial imperatives with those of fairness and social justice. Employers need to tread carefully too. Aesthetic labour should be about great service, not great teeth."

 Notes to editors:

          The Industrial Society are the UK's leading thinkers and advisers on the world of work. Everything we do - from consultancy to research, from training to advocacy, from education to advisory services, is driven by our commitment to improve working life. We are a wholly independent, not-for profit body and hold Royal Charter status. Our members include companies of every size, from every sector of the economy, along with public sector organisations, charities and trade unions.

         Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson of Strathclyde University are available for interview. Richard Reeves, director of Futures at The Industrial Society and Max Nathan - Futures researcher are also available for interview.

         In Glasgow, the Wise Group, a leading charity helping unemployed people into work, has piloted a course specifically targeted at self-image and the skills required to access the style labour market.

         Press copies of Looking good, sounding right: style counselling in the new economy are available from The Industrial Society press office

Looking good, sounding right: style counselling in the new economy is available from The Industrial Society on 0870 400 1000 price 20

Futures at The Industrial Society can be found at

For further press information, please contact Memuna Forna on Tel:020 7479 2111/Fax: 020 7479 2401 Mobile: 07970 936187/Email: Industrial Society Reprinted at with permission




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