Should employers be able to dictate what you eat your lunch from or where you hang your coat? This company’s employer branding is on steroids.
If you’ve ever walked into an Aesop store, you’ll be familiar with the calming, multi-sensory customer experience. The air is lightly misted with the scent of a mysterious citrus fruit, the fresh-faced staff approach you with the kindness of a distant relative, and it’s likely your hand will be washed, towel dried and lightly massaged at some point.
If so, you might not be surprised to find out that this considered, aesthetic-focused approach is carried on behind the scenes of Aesop HQ. Employees from all departments within the skincare franchise are asked to follow quite a unique set of policies all in the name of cultivating a strong culture.
Going through those policies with an HR lens, you have to ask, how far is too far?
Aesthetics to encourage culture
Everything about Aesop is highly curated, even down to their choice of toilet paper.
A day in the life of an Aesopian (an employee for those not familiar with the lingo) is intended to be smooth, calm and aesthetically pleasing. Staff are asked to pour their coffee into Aesop-approved cups, and are told eating from a Tupperware container is a no go – that’s what the Aesop-supplied bowls and plates are for. You also mustn’t eat at your desk and “junk food” is discouraged.
In their retail stores, microwaves are banned from the back rooms, to avoid employees heating up food that could waft a nasty smell into the store that would disturb the scent of that mysterious citrus fruit.
Notes are to be recorded exclusively in Moleskine diaries and Post-it notes should not decorate the edges of your computer, but rather remain inside said Moleskine. Employees are asked to utilise the coat rack instead of hanging things from the back of an office chair, and it’s important you choose the ‘right’ colours if you’re giving a Powerpoint presentation, according to the former chief marketing officer Lisa D’Amico.
“The colours used on PowerPoint presentations are really, really important, particularly to the board. If you’re not OK with that you just won’t enjoy it here. We take cultural alignment to the nth degree. If the fit is not good for you, then it’s not good for us. It’s a sensibility. Execution matters,” D’Amico told the AFR.
Another head office employee told Mamamia: “This is not a personal space, it’s a work space, and we’re trying to promote a beautiful idea that flows through every aspect of the business – from the product packaging to the stores themselves, up to the way in which we work each day. It’s about aesthetic and thoughtfulness, and it really works.”
“We take cultural alignment to the nth degree. If the fit is not good for you, then it’s not good for us. It’s a sensibility. Execution matters.”
Customer-facing employees aren’t allowed to have colourful dyed/bleached hair (that’s in their contract) and if you want to wear lipstick the only acceptable colour is red.
A former Aesop employee told HRM, “Some of the organisational policies made the physical work environment feel clean, calming and organised. This often brought about a similar state of mind during work hours.”
This is all well and good in theory. Working in a beautiful environment is nice, and being forced to eat away from your desk can help with wellbeing. But while such stringent policies could warm the cockles of one employee’s heart, it could leave another feeling alienated.
When you’re not “Aesop enough”
On Glassdoor, a site where employees review employers, Aesop’s profile reveals that not everyone feels this approach works. It seems that when some employees feel they have to “fit the mould” in order to belong.
One person says it’s an organisation that “relies on perfection” and says the culture can be somewhat toxic. “There’s a feeling of inadequacy if you’re not Aesop enough.”
Another former employee says: “They expect each staff member to fit into their cookie cutter mould of the ‘perfect Aesopian’ and look down on anyone who is a little different.”
HRM spoke with two former Aesop employees who both had positive experiences working for the store. “I know it probably sounds like I’ve drunk the Aesop Kool-Aid, but I just honestly had an incredibly positive experience working there,” one of them says. They were, however, able to acknowledge that it was somewhat of a strange place to work at times.
When asked if she thought the company attracted the same type of person Rachel* says, “I think some of the ‘guidelines’ mean the company very clearly attracts like-minded people and confuses or repels others.
“I worked with men and women, students and parents, with lots of different personalities, styles and backgrounds. The only precondition was to be polite, authentic, clean and tidy. I think some of the lines that get pulled out of the staff guidelines are sensationalised; they served as good examples to understand the brand, not sticks to beat down individualism.”
Lisa* admits that even as an ex-employee she can feel slightly irritated by the ‘cookie-cutter’ type employee so common in Aesop stores.
“Everyone speaks in the same way, that Aesop elitist manner where only topics of art and architecture are appreciated.”
There were definitely moments where Lisa felt she didn’t fit the mould.
“I often felt that way, coming from a science degree and having a bit of country (bogan) twang to my accent. However, I was fortunate to have worked in a really great team where we didn’t necessarily all share the same interests. Everyone respected and valued each other’s different quirks.”
While dress code policies and uniforms have their place, dictating the colour of an employee’s lipstick seems excessive. Social scientists refer to the practice of screening and managing employees on the basis of their physical appearance as “aesthetic labour”.
In a world focused on image, through the proliferation of social media, it seems this approach to hiring is here to stay. According to the authors of ‘Aesthetic Labour and the Policy-Making Agenda: Time for a Reappraisal of Skills’, some employers rely on functions such as call-centre scripts to dictate employees mood, appearance and demeanour, while other employers attempt to train employees to achieve the same ends.
“Alternatively, companies can employ only those people who already have the right attitudes. This approach is linked to competency-based recruitment and selection. The aim is to have ‘oven ready’ employees, able to be popped straight onto the shop floor to work with minimal preparation,” the authors say.
But if employers are looking for the ‘perfect employee’ (just add water) they could unintentionally land themselves with a homogenous workforce. Even if you’ve got cultural and gender diversity sorted, different personality types bring about diversity of thought, and that’s important.
HRM recently looked into the unconscious favouritism shown to employees deemed to be more attractive than others, and the underlying biases around appearance present in the hiring process are widely known. What Aesop are doing seems to be different. True, they appear to be hiring a certain ‘look’, but perhaps that’s just an offshoot of hiring for a specific ‘feel’.
The preferred personality type at Aesop is enviable. Who wouldn’t want to feel as if they’re floating through the day with a clear mind and gentle demeanour? But this does not come naturally to everyone. What if a new hire was able to mimic the behaviour of ‘the perfect Aesop employee’ long enough to get their foot in the door, but from there felt they were putting it on?
Psychologist Andrea Linder says there can be detrimental effects when people feel they have to put on a certain persona in the workplace.
“Changing your personality too much can cause you to become stressed and feel disconnected, or even depressed. This is especially true if your work persona is at odds with your true personality,” Linder says in a Fast Company article.
She goes on to say that this feeling of having to harbor a dual personality is heavily influenced by the people you work with and the environment you work in. So while it’s easy to notice the benefits of working within a highly curated space with like-minded individuals, it’s also important to acknowledge that it could be a highly anxious experience for someone who constantly fears they’ll step out of line.
Of course, Aesop is just one example of a company that zeros in on its cultural practices in a very specific way. You’d only have to look into the offices of fashion magazines or other luxury brands to find similar practices.
Employers and hiring managers should make sure to look beyond the short-term benefits of an ‘oven-ready’ employee and consider how their presence will impact the long term environment of the company.
*Names have been changed.
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