Emotional Labor In The Workplace Essay

Critically evaluate whether the requirement for emotional labour in hospitality and tourism work is ethicalCritically evaluate whether the requirement for emotional labour in hospitality and tourism work is ethical

rodrigo | November 23, 2012

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In the field of hospitality and tourism, emotional labour is a controversial but increasingly common factor in the management of working environments. It was first described by Hochschild (1983) as “management of feeling to create a publicly facial and bodily display” (Hochschild, 1983: 15). In other words, it is the idea that employees should behave in certain ways and display certain emotions that contribute to a certain perception of the company for which they are working. At a basic level, someone who works in a business where they have to interact with customers a lot might be expected to act as if they are happy all the time, even if they are feeling sad. This would give the company a level of consistency across all its employees and would, in theory, encourage customers to believe not only that the company is more friendly and well-meaning, but also that the employees are genuinely happy to be working there.

However, some critics believe that emotional labour is fundamentally dishonest and unethical. For one thing, emotional labour demands that employees ‘act out’ false emotions and even entirely false personalities. As Williams (2002) points out, this can “not only make the hospitality environment seem strained and unusual, it can also have a negative impact upon the psychological well-being of the employee” (Williams, 2002: 50). In other words, although emotional labour is designed to strengthen the relationship between an employee and a customer, it can in fact have the opposite effect. Meanwhile, there are also concerns over the extent to which emotional labour destabilises relationships in the service sector and encourages falseness and insincerity. For these reasons and others, many critics have suggested that emotional labour cannot be considered to be ethical.

Emotional labour is based on the ability of a company to dictate a certain ’emotional palette’ that employees can use when interacting with customers. In the service industry this is particularly important, because employees are often helping customers to enjoy themselves. It is clear that employees in this industry need to be friendly and helpful, and that a rude or arrogant employee could cause problems. But some critics believe that the concept of emotional labour has taken that basic assumption and expanded it “to a quite absurd degree so that it is a caricature of common sense” (Baum, 2006: 108). In other words, emotional labour is “the ritualisation of courtesy” (Nickson, 2006: 130) and will in many cases create a false environment. Many critics also note that this is ultimately pointless because “most customers are capable of detecting falseness and insincerity” (Baum, 2006: 110). If this is the case, emotional labour can be seen to be a kind of ‘subconscious contract’, where both employee and consumer are aware of this artificiality but value it nonetheless.

In the hospitality industry, for example, an employee must reflect cleanliness and professionalism. For example, someone working for a caterer must appear not only happy but also meticulous, careful and clean.  In effect, then, the employees become a collective personification of the company’s identity, and they are a key way in which the company can project an external image of itself to its customers. Many companies therefore try to project a strong, positive and forward-thinking image in order to impress customers, even though this impression might be far removed from the reality of working for the company and from the company’s overall philosophy. Over the past few decades, emotional labour has become an increasingly controversial and influential aspect of the ways in which companies encourage employees to behave, but as Sandiford and Seymour (2002) point out, this can be both a positive and a negative factor (Sandiford & Seymour, 2002: 160). It is important to note that emotional labour is not seen by most critics as an entirely negative concept. The debate is over the application of that concept.

These principles are a basic part of any people management strategy, but some critics argue that emotional labour goes too far and encourages a level of dishonesty that is unethical. In order for people management to be ethical, it has to ensure that employees are not persuaded to lie. Critics of emotional labour argue that it is a form of deception and that it encourages people to view corporations as if they are people rather than businesses. This, according to Burchill (2009), “creates an unequal and unbalanced relationship between consumer and company, one that the company can manipulate” (Burchill, 2009: 71). Although consumers should in theory be able to get past such perceptions, in reality they often cannot and will instead treat the company as if it is a manifestation of its employees. James (1998) notes that “considerable amounts of research have shown, time and again, that employees who are smiley and happy will give an overall better impression of the company than employees who are dour” (James, 1998: 25) and that perceptions of employees can transfer to perceptions of products and services.

Similarly, Korczynski (2003) argues that “consumers prefer to interact with corporations on a human level and so will be particularly receptive to any opportunity that they might have to deal with a company as if it is a person” (Korczynski, 2003: 56). Korczynski goes on to suggest that this is a form of “coping mechanism” (Korczynski, 2003: 57) that is embraced willingly by consumers so that they can more easily navigate the commercial environment. This argument would seem to suggest that consumers are more than happy to submit to the benefits of emotional labour, and that any negative aspects are perceived to be more than made up for by the fact that they are able to interact with ‘actors’ who seem to be happy. Some critics also argue that this approach helps consumers to get over any feelings of ‘guilt’ that they may have due to their position in the commercial relationship.

Ethical people management should not place undue stress on employees. Sharpe (2005) notes that stress can harm both the employee and the business (Sharpe, 2005). Although any workplace is likely to feature some degree of stress, most critics agree that there is a limit, although not necessarily the extent of that limit. Kasavana (2005) points out that “ethical people management has to include some element of stress management, in order that employees are able to operate in a way that reflects their personality” (Kasavana, 2005: 16). He goes on to note that “research has shown consistently that customers tend to relax when they perceive that the employee is professional yet also personable” (Kasavana, 2005: 19), i.e. artificiality can be a strong negative factor. For employees themselves, emotional labour can be a difficult concept to fully grasp. James (1998) argues that “different people respond in different ways to the fundamental demands placed on them by the ethos of emotional labour” (James, 1998: 28). Responses from employees can range all the way along the spectrum, from complete acceptance and willing participation, to a grudging willingness to comply. Some researchers have questioned the degree to which this can lead to emotional problems, including depression, especially if someone is forced to maintain a happy facade for long hours when that facade is strongly contrary to how they are really feeling.

Fennell and Malloy (2007) suggest that the theory of emotional labour “focuses on obvious forms of interpersonal communication and ignores the subtle” (Fennell & Malloy, 2007: 15). There is no definitive study of this emotional impact, but Korczynski (2003) notes that “there is substantial anecdotal evidence to support the idea that many employees have to develop their own personal coping mechanisms in order that they can deal with the requirement to be happy and friendly at all times” (Korczynski, 2003: 59). The emotional toll that this places on employees can be measured in the short, medium or long term, but is likely to become more apparent as time passes. Critics argue that employees can develop not only depression but also stress, emotional exhaustion and feelings of inauthenticity, and that in some cases pre-existing emotional or mental problems can be significantly exacerbated by the need to conform to the demands of emotional labour. Since employers have a duty of care when it comes to their employees (Sharpe, 2005), it is important that they do not add to the stress that employees feel.

Emotional regulation in the workplace takes two key forms. Each form is subtly different from the other and is perceived as having advantages and disadvantages:

Antecedent-focused emotion regulation involves the modification of emotional responses on an ongoing basis, determined by changing the situation or changing the ways in which the situation is represented.

Response-focused emotion regulation involves making constant changes to emotional regulation based on how a relationship is developing and how a customer seems to be responding.

Both approaches are widely used. The antecedent-based method allows employees in the service sector, in particular, to find new ways in which they might be able to best manage the presentation of emotions in the workplace. In fact, Fineman (2003) argues that one of the core aspects of emotional labour is the ability of an individual to regulate and manage his or her emotions in a way that reflects the different demands of a particular situation. It can be argued that his is especially difficult in the service sector because “employees might find that they are constantly encountering new individuals and having to re-interpret their own emotions in order to fit a constantly changing need” (Fineman, 2003: 105).

For example, an employee might work with a happy customer one moment, then a demanding customer, then a customer who is angry, and so on. In some cases, there might be multiple customers to deal with and, in the service sector especially, it might be virtually impossible to find a way to satisfy everyone at once. As Fineman goes on to argue, “it would be simplistic to accept that emotional labour can be restricted to a simple one-to-one dynamic when in fact an employee has multiple relationships to deal with simultaneously” (Fineman, 2003: 108). For example, an employee might have to deal with multiple customers, plus colleagues, plus employers, plus self-perception, and might struggle if unable to find some way to draw all these perceptions together and create a single perception of self that can be presented to others.

Some critics see emotional labour as a particularly western phenomenon and, as a result, view it as part of a deeply unethical hegemonic control system. For example, Crotts and McNeill (2005) argue that “as western companies expand across the globe, they seek to control the emotional labour of employees in very different, non-western cultures” (Crotts & McNeill, 2005: 280). This, the authors suggest, results in westernisation of many workers around the world, which in turn reduces the cultural specificity of work in particular locations and leads to an inability for different cultural standards to co-exist. This damages not only the culture that is forced to conform in this way, but also the tourists who are unable to engage with true representations of other cultures. Many critics believe that this will, over time, have a significant negative impact on the ways in which different cultures are able to co-exist. However, it is also clear that in this context emotional labour is a strong profit-driver for western companies, which in turn are extremely unlikely to want to give up this lucrative trade.

Therefore, it can be argued that emotional labour is perpetuated because it increases profits, and that any arguments over the ethics of the practice are unlikely to succeed. This is not necessarily a rational approach to the relationship, nor is it necessarily an approach that has any basis in logic, but as Fineman (2003) points out “rationality is not really a factor in many service-orientated relationships” (Fineman, 2003: 147) and there is “an unspoken contract between the various ‘actors’ in any given situation” (Fineman, 2003: 150). If this unspoken contract is broken, the result can be feelings of awkwardness and uncertainty, and this can negatively impact any purchasing decisions that are made. Furthermore, the results can be that the customer develops a negative perception of the entire company based purely on the perception of one particular employee. In this way, it is clearly extremely important that every employee maintains a certain minimum level of behaviour. A number of critics point out that some expectations are perfectly reasonable (Grandey et al., 2005), but that in some cases these are taken too far. In some companies, there are additional requirements that are linked to the identities of those particular companies. If an employee is unable to comply with these demands, he or she might be seen as a disruptive element.

Emotional labour can cause more harm, however, when it is applied in a way that damages the ability of workers to present the kind of persona that company’s desire. Lieberman & Nissen (2008) suggest that there is a danger that “emotional labour will put impossible pressure on employees, to the extent that they are bound to fail” (Lieberman & Nussen, 2008: 20). If workers are forced to do something that is strongly against either their principles or their personal feelings, the result can be a strong sense of inauthenticity. Burhcill (2009) points out that “there is a thin and almost imperceptible line between a convincing and an unconvincing display of emotion in the workplace” (Burchill, 2009: 190), and while the former can be positive and helpful, the latter can be disconcerting in some cases extremely negative. Burchill goes on to note that poorly implemented emotional labour can in many cases be worse than a complete lack of the same approach, since “poor implementation can give rise to strong perceptions of artificiality and can emphasise, rather than disguise, the commercial nature of the relationship between customer and employee” (Burchill, 2009: 193). This highlights the fact that in many ways, emotional labour can be seen as a form of untruth or falsehood that encourages unreal relationships to develop, and which might ultimately have a strong negative impact.

Clearly, therefore, emotional labour has both positive and negative aspects. In the tourism and hospitality industries, emotional labour can enhance the experience for some customers while damaging it for others; it can also improve the working conditions for some employees, while harming it for others. The ethics of emotional labour are clearly quite contentious, and the issue is highly subjective. Although there are clearly some downsides to emotional labour, especially if it is pushed too far and ends up causing a sense of inauthenticity, this should not be taken to mean that emotional labour is not effective as a concept when it is properly implemented. In fact, when emotional labour is implemented with care and precision, it can be a very powerful business tool, especially within the tourism and hospitality industries.




Baum, T. (2006). Human Resource Management for the Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure Industries. LondonL Cengage Learning

Burchill, F. (2009). Labour Relations. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Crotts, J.C. & R.G. McNeill (2005). Selling Hospitality: A Situational Approach. London: Delmar Cengage Learning

Fennell, D.A. & D.C. Malloy (2007). Codes of Ethics in Tourism. Brighton: Channel View Publications

Fineman, S. (2003). Understanding Emotion at Work. London, New Delhi & Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Grandey, A. & Fisk, G. & Steiner, D. (2005). Must service with a smile be stressful? The moderating role of personal control for American and French employees. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (5), pp. 893-904

Hochschild, A. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press

James, N. (1998). Emotional Labour: Skill and Work in the Social Regulation of Feelings. London: Routledge

Lieberman, K. & B. Nissen (2008). Ethics in Hospitality and Tourism. Washington DC: Amer Hotel and Motel Association

Kassavana, M.L. (2005). Managing Front Office Operations. New York: The Educational Institute of American Hotels

Korczynski, M. (2003). Communities of coping: collective emotional labour in service work. Organisation, 10 (1), pp. 55-79

Nickson, D. (2006). Human Resource Management for the Hospitality and Tourism Industries. London: Butterworth-Heinemann

Sandiford, P. & Seymour, D. (2002). Emotional labour in public houses; reflections on a pilot study. The International Journal of Hospitality Management, 19 (2), pp. 159-171

Sharpe, E. (2005). Going above and beyond: the emotional labour of adventure guides. The Journal of Leisure Research, 37 (1), pp. 29-50

Williams, A. (2009). Understanding the Hospitality Industry. London: Butterworth-Heinemann


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Help your people present a positive image to customers.

"Miss, can you bring me a glass of water?"...

"Oh miss, I need some ketchup for my eggs."...

"Oh dear... Miss, my eggs are too runny. I can't possibly eat these. You'll need to send them back, and make sure my order is right this time."...

"Well, now there's a mark on my water glass. Get me a new one!"...

"You expect me to pay full price for this meal? I was served runny eggs and had to go out of my way to ask for water, which was then brought in a dirty glass. I can't believe it. There will certainly be no tip for you, young lady!"

How would you feel if you were the waitress (or waiter) dealing with this customer? Frustrated? Angry? Humiliated? Comments like this from a customer are likely to provoke a negative emotional reaction. However, as a hardworking professional, you would have to hide your personal feelings, and remain calm and positive throughout the exchange.

Does your job require you to manage your emotions, or the way you express those emotions, to meet organizational expectations? This is called 'emotional labor.' People in a service-oriented role – hotel workers, airline flight attendants, tour operators, coaches, counselors – often face the demands of emotional labor.

What Is Emotional Labor?

Arlie Hochschild created the term 'emotional labor' in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that goes beyond physical or mental duties. Showing a genuine concern for customers' needs, smiling, and making positive eye contact are all critical to a customer's perception of service quality. These types of activities, when they're essential to worker performance, are emotional labor.

When you face angry clients, or people who are generally unpleasant, emotional labor can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions, and continue to 'smile and nod your head,' even when receiving negative or critical feedback.

Companies often place a great deal of strategic importance on service orientation, not only to external customers but to colleagues and internal clients as well. While emotional labor is applicable to many areas of business, the consequences are probably greatest in traditional service roles. However, in an increasingly service-oriented marketplace, it's important to understand how emotional labor affects workers, and what organizations can do to support and manage any issues.

Implications for Workers

When you engage in emotional labor, you control your feelings to fulfill the goals and expectations of your organization. From a practical standpoint, this means that you either (a) express only your positive feelings, or (b) hide or manage your negative feelings. To deal with negative emotions, people tend to do one of the following:

  • Show emotion they don't really feel.
  • Hide emotion they really do feel.
  • Create an appropriate emotion for the situation.

You can do this using two emotional labor techniques:

  • Surface acting – You fake, or pretend to have, an emotion by using unnatural and artificial body language and verbal communication. Smiling and using a soft tone of voice help you show emotion that you don't feel, or hide emotion that you do feel.
  • Deep acting – You control your internal emotions, directing them to believe that you actually are happy, and enjoying the interaction with the other person. Rather than feel like you're pretending, you convince yourself you're not experiencing a negative reaction.

When you continually need to show only those emotions that are appropriate for the job, despite how you really feel, this can often lead to emotional conflict between your real emotions and those you show to others.

Some researchers believe that emotional conflict like this leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout for workers – and that hiding your emotions on a regular basis leads to high levels of stress, and even a disconnection from close personal relationships. However, other studies have not found a connection between emotional conflict and emotional exhaustion.

A popular theory to explain this inconsistency in research findings is that individuals vary in their ability to deal with inauthentic, or 'pretend,' emotional expressions. Some workers may be able to identify with the organization's values of positive emotional communication, making them better prepared to express appropriate emotions. Also, people who are generally more cheerful and pleasant may be able to turn off negative emotions more easily than others.

Another factor may be a person's ability to recognize different social situations, and how to behave appropriately. People with more negative personalities and lower social awareness tend to have the hardest time dealing with emotional conflict – and they probably experience emotional exhaustion more easily.

To get a better understanding of emotional labor, here are some questions to ask yourself and, perhaps, to explore with your team:

  • What are the emotional labor requirements of your job?
  • How do you deal with these requirements?
  • How often do you experience emotional conflict?
  • Do you think emotional conflict has led to emotional exhaustion?
  • How do you manage stress and other signs of emotional exhaustion?

By regularly examining the role of emotional labor in your work, you can help reduce the potential negative effects – and continue to provide high-quality service to internal and external customers.

Implications for Organizations

It's important for workers to understand the impact that emotional labor has on their performance. However, it's essential that organizations are also aware of this requirement, so they can find ways to provide support to their workers, and help them deal with the impact of emotional labor.

Service workers typically need to perform in a certain manner if they're going to provide high quality service. This is usually defined by management, then strictly regulated and monitored. For example, customer service rules might be 'The customer is always right,' or 'Always greet customers with a smile.'

Expecting people to work in teams, and show positive team behaviors with their colleagues, adds another element of emotional labor. In fact, many organizations place a growing emphasis on building relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders. This comes with many emotional labor conditions.

It's reasonable to believe that helping people deal with the consequences of emotional labor will improve staff morale and reduce staff turnover. Here are some common strategies that organizations use to help their staff deal with the demands of emotional labor:

  • Use buffering – Companies may assign front-end personnel to manage the emotional demands and needs of customers. By the time customers reach back-end workers, they can concentrate on business.
  • Teach 'display' rules – These are organizationally approved norms or standards that workers learn through observation, instruction, feedback, and reinforcement. Staff are taught how to act, and they may even be given scripts to use when dealing directly with clients. Therapists are taught to act neutrally, retail workers are taught to act positively, and bill collectors are often taught to act aggressive. Combining these display rules with company culture is very important.
  • Offer staff assistance programs – Organizations invest in the care and development of their workers by providing access to stress management and emotional health services. This strategy recognizes that emotional labor can be hard work.
  • Teach problem-solving techniques – To move workers beyond using scripts or relying on other display rules, some companies help their staff solve problems more effectively. This helps people build confidence, and reduce their negative reactions to angry or unpredictable situations. The better that workers are able to deal with problems, the more likely they are to resolve interpersonal issues before they lead to negative emotions.
  • Improve emotional intelligence – The ability to recognize other people's emotions is an effective way to reduce the burden of emotional labor. Building empathy and using other emotional intelligence tools help reduce the likelihood that emotional conflict will lead to emotional exhaustion.
  • Share knowledge – One of the most effective ways to help people deal with the realities of emotional labor is to share success stories. Allow staff to learn how others successfully deal with the impact of emotional conflict.
  • Bring emotional labor into the performance evaluation process – Organizations can recognize the importance of emotional labor by measuring workers' emotional effort factors and commitment to customer service. How well do workers deal with angry people? What type of attitude do they bring to work every day? Do they show tolerance and patience? When workers are rewarded for their emotional labor, it provides an incentive for them to show organizationally accepted emotions more often.

Used appropriately, these strategies can take much of the pain out of emotional labor. Indeed, where problems are addressed appropriately, service workers often report tremendous levels of satisfaction when they're able to help clients resolve their problems.

Many people would say that it's important to be authentic in all your communications. Clearly, this conflicts with the organization's need for customer service personnel to leave customers feeling positive and happy about their experience. The approaches described above are also useful for helping individuals reconcile these conflicting requirements.

Key Points

Emotional labor occurs when workers are paid, in part, to manage and control their emotions. Traditionally, we've seen this in service-oriented professions. But service excellence is now a key driver of success in most organizations, so elements of emotional labor are present in almost all workplaces. It's important to understand the impact of emotional labor, and how it affects workers.

Emotions at work are an important part of company life. Help people understand their reactions to emotional labor, and develop policies and procedures to reduce the negative impact of emotional labor. These are ways to improve overall performance and worker satisfaction.

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