Hamish McRae: Look good, talk well and smell less: all keys to success

'Soft skills do seem to have become more important than hard ones'
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The Independent Online

Style beats substance. No, that is not a comment about politics or showbiz but rather about normal business life. We are all aware that presentation matters enormously in politics; most of us can think of very successful actors and actresses who look marvellous but, when they depart from the script, turn out to be total fruitcakes.

Style beats substance. No, that is not a comment about politics or showbiz but rather about normal business life. We are all aware that presentation matters enormously in politics; most of us can think of very successful actors and actresses who look marvellous but, when they depart from the script, turn out to be total fruitcakes.

But up to now most people have assumed that in the normal world of work what matters is how well you do your job, not what you look like. Sadly, it seems this is no longer the case. "Aesthetic labour is here to stay."

That quote comes from a new study by the Industrial Society, "Looking good, sounding right: style counselling in the new economy". It suggests that bosses choose staff for their self-presentational skills rather than technical skills or experience. The authors, Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson of Strathclyde University, believe that government training policy should try and help staff meet these needs. Everyone, not only middle-class professionals and politicians, should be prepared to make use of the image-makers.

The survey was carried out in the Glasgow region but its findings are almost certainly applicable elsewhere in these islands. The authors asked employers about the things they looked for when hiring new employees. Key findings include a high ranking for personal presentation and appearance (above even initiative and communications skills), and very low ranking for technical skills.

They noted that job adverts for the hospitality and retailing sectors cited people being "stylish", "attractive", "trendy" and "well-spoken and of smart appearance". They noted a 1996 survey of recruitment consultants which suggested that strong regional accents, especially Birmingham and Liverpool, were regarded negatively. And they found that in Glasgow, where 84 per cent of jobs are in services, employers recruit largely on the basis of physical appearance or accent.

To most people involved in business, such findings will come as little surprise. Self-presentation has always been important in the job market. The rules have changed over time: to oversimplify, formality was prized in the 1950s and 1960s; creativity and individualism in the 1970s and 1980s; style seems the key attribute now; and doubtless formality will return in the near future.

Nevertheless, the importance of what are usually dubbed "soft" skills does seem to have become relatively more important than "hard" ones. Why?

Part of the reason is the shift from manufacturing to service industry. In most manufacturing jobs, the person doing the job does not come into contact with the buyer. We don't have to go to the factory to buy our new fridge - a good thing, since the factory is probably in China. In most services, however, the service is either fabricated at point of sale (a restaurant meal, a consultation with the doctor) or involves an exchange of ideas with another person (telephone banking, a computer help-line).

But the rising importance of self-presentation is not just the result of the shift to services; it is also a result of the increase of consumer choice. If you have only one supplier, consumers are obliged to put up with stroppy employees. But now we increasingly have choice and many of us will have vowed never to use a supplier if one of their staff has been rude - or always use one if we have experienced exceptional service. Once employers cotton on to the fact that customers don't bother to complain but simply go away, they start to hire people who present themselves properly.

So what are the implications? The obvious danger, noted by the Strathclyde authors, is the emergence of an employment underclass of people who don't meet the aesthetic standards of employers. The whole idea that people are judged by appearance is pretty discomforting. It seems a bit rough that someone should be excluded from a good job just because they happen to have an unfortunate appearance. But while some jobs do turn on appearance, if you broaden the notion of attractiveness to include the "sounding right" as well as "looking good", the danger of social exclusion recedes a bit.

The citing of so many call centres in places like Leeds, Glasgow and Cardiff suggests that Yorkshire, Scottish and Welsh accents are no bar. Apparently, most people would rather talk to a bank whose employees speak reliable Scots rather than smarmy Received Pronunciation, the technical phrase for what used to be called BBC English.

In any case, it ought to be easier to teach people to present themselves well than to teach them the vast variety of technical and other skills that we are supposed to be learning. Learning to speak English well is probably easier than learning to speak French badly. Learning to dress appropriately is certainly easier than learning econometrics.

There does, nevertheless, seem to be a growing gap between what the education system teaches and what employers want. Of course, it would be sad indeed were education to become just training for the job market. Much of the richness of any education system is its willingness to teach things that do not have an immediate practical use, just as part of the richness of any human being lies in qualities that are not work related.

Still, it is hard not to agree with Richard Reeves, director of the Futures programme at the Industrial Society, who says that in contrast to Americans we need to pay more attention to appearances. "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."

I'm not so sure about the smell bit, but I accept his main point. I am also relieved that there are still some important exceptions, some jobs that do not require anyone to know how you look or sound, your age, or even where you are located: people who work on screen. "On the internet," said one screen-bound hound to another in the famous New Yorker cartoon, "No one knows you're a dog."

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