You shouldn’t keep a good tattoo hidden – unless that is if you’re a company worried about scaring your customers. Air New Zealand is one such company. It has refused to hire a job applicant because she had a visible traditional Maori tattoo; Maoris of course being the first people of what became New Zealand. The applicant, Claire Nathan thought the company ‘would be quite proud to have someone with a ta moko working and representing New Zealand’. Instead the company stated that ‘We want all of our customers to feel comfortable and happy when travelling on our services and this has been a key driver of our grooming standard which, like many other international airlines, prevents customer facing staff from having visible tattoos.’
This month I completed what the Australians call a ‘FIFO’ – a fly in, fly out visit to London. I was there to participate in a review of the ESRC-funded research centre SKOPE, based at Oxford University. The visit coincided with the funeral in London of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Reading through the UK press obituaries, I think that a fair summary of Thatcher political life was that while she loved Britain, she loathed the British. It’s interesting that if, as many of the right-wing commentators claimed, she changed Britain for the better, her offspring now live in the US and South Africa and also flew in for the occasion.
From America to Australia, the new, third season of the TV series Downton Abbey has started. Even in an age of opulence, life is sometimes not easy for a well-heeled family. In the first episode, Downton Abbey’s new footman is proving difficult. Not only does he not know the difference between silver service and butler service but he is too tall for the job and does not fit his uniform. His height therefore is a problem because wearing these uniforms is one of the many important signifiers of the family’s wealth and status.
As Cynthia Cockburn has pointed out, the physicality of jobs can be constructed to fit only certain bodes; in her study of the printing industry, male bodies. In this industry, tools and equipment were designed to suit male bodies, acting to disadvantage women. Apparently, workwear too can be designed to fit only certain bodies. Because the uniforms, or livery, of domestic staff can be expensive, in order to cut costs and recycle, uniforms would be bought that fit average size bodies. To wear them and be able to work, footmen therefore need to be of average height and build, as William Hanson explained in the Huffington Post. Even today at Buckingham Palace footmen are typically of average height – 5’ 8’’ – for this reason, Hanson continued.
The height of the Downton Abbey footman made me start thinking about the loci of aesthetic labour, or more prosaically: where is it found? Aesthetic labour centres on how interactive service organisations seek to create a style of service encounter that affects customers’ senses. Most research as focused on workers looks, though increasingly research is turning to how workers sound. Encapsulating theses senses, along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’ve suggested that aesthetic labour is most obviously manifest in dress, comportment and speech. The issue though is whether it is a purely private sector initiative, as employers seek to gain competitive advantage, or can be found in other sectors, such as the public and not-for-profit sectors. Read More
The University of Washington in St Louis has just hosted a colloquium on invisible labour. It was organised by Winnie Poser and her colleagues at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital. Two key questions informed the meeting: what counts as work, and why are some workers invisible? The starting point for the debate was the many forms of labour that are hidden from public view.
The keynote was provided by Arlie Hochschild who discussed her recent book The Outsourced Self. Everything including intimacy can now be bought on the market she explained – we can hire trainers to teach us to be the CEO of our love life, wedding planners, parenting surrogates and people to choose our babies names for example. All of our lives’ activities, not just our labour are now being commodified and sub-contracted to others. We need to reveal and research this development she said. Read More
Pity UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. He’s a toff with tummy trouble. Dressed in white tie giving his annual speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in the Guildhall in London, the midriff studs popped off his dress shirt. Untrimmed tummy exposed to a photographer’s lens, his embarrassment was quickly posted on the internet.
As wardrobe malfunctions go, it hardly compares with Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl. However it did spark a debate in the UK media about sartorial etiquette. At least Cameron made the effort to dress properly, the Conservative Party-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper chimed. It’s the tie-less creative class that deserve a dressing down for dressing down, it opined, pointing to the newly appointed acting director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, who turned up for his first day of work – shock, horror – tieless.
Western society tends to emphasize the visual senses. Nevertheless, how workers speak and what they say is as important as their looks in aesthetic labour. However as Elizabeth Eustace points out in an article recently published in Work, Employment and Society, workers’ speech has been relatively neglected by researchers. It’s a neglect that needs to be rectified.
Our speech is socialised. There are two outcomes. Firstly, what we say and how we say it defines us; it both classifies us – where we’re from, what education we’ve had and who our parents are. Secondly, because some forms of speech are more favoured than others, it hierarchicalises us. There are thus more and less desirable ways of speaking. What playwright George Bernard Shaw said in his foreword to his play Pygmalion at the start of the twentieth century is still pertinent today in the twenty-first: ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate and despise him.’
Organisations also have their preferred linguistic codes. Employers try to hire people who speak in particular ways because it reflects on the organisation and how it is perceived. Organisations also train employees to speak in particular ways, suggesting what is to be said and how it is to be said.
With battles won over sex and race discrimination in the past, and more recently over disability and sexual preference, it may be that lookism becomes the next frontier in the battle against employment discrimination. Studies on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed both a beauty premium and a beauty penalty. Workers perceived to be better looking are more likely to be hired, to turn in better workplace performances, receive better pay and have better career prospects. Conversely those workers perceived to be average or worse looking receive less pay, are regarded as poorer performers, have more stunted careers and are more likely to lose their jobs.
Over the past few months, British media types have been convulsed in a debate about lookism. It started when a columnist in the Daily Mail newspaper, Quentin Letts, commented derogatively on the looks of a 60 year old female government minister. She was, Letts admitted, good looking for her age but because of the glop that she slapped onto her face at night.