How companies force ‘emotional labor’ on low-wage workers

Updated
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced a campaign to encourage Congress and the White House to cut a deal that would avert the fiscal cliff.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced a campaign to encourage Congress and the White House to cut a deal that would avert the fiscal cliff.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

A Starbucks barista’s job is more than just serving coffee. She also needs to be polite, even friendly, to the customers. If she does her job correctly, then maybe the customer will walk away feeling like the barista was actually happy to serve him—that it was not only her job, but a genuine pleasure. In many jobs, that sort of projected enthusiasm may just be a way of earning some additional tips on top of the employee’s base pay. But in other lines of work—including the occupations which fuel America’s growing low-wage service sector—proper emotional responses are mandatory.

The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term “emotional labor” in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, where she described it as ”management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display … sold for a wage.” The term can apply to work in a variety of professions, from escorts to doctors, but it is most often used in reference to the sort of attitude management which occurs in low-wage service sector jobs. Josh Eidelson and Timothy Noah recently discussed two prominent examples in articles for The Nation and The New Republic.

In The Nation, Eidelson highlights Starbucks’ famous “come together” cups as a perfect example of emotional labor. When the CEO of Starbucks required that DC area employees write “come together” on every paper Starbucks cup served until the fiscal cliff negotiations were over, writes Eidelson, he was forcing those workers to “act out a part—from speaking from a company script, to smiling despite verbal abuse or physical pain, to urging that Congress embrace a deal that could imperil their retirement.”

Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Timothy Noah observes that the sandwich shop chain Pret A Manger aggressively monitors its employees’ displays of enthusiasm. If any worker at any particular store seems insufficiently pleased to see their customers, he and all of his coworkers could suffer the consequences. Pret CEO Clive Schlee even monitors whether his employees are making enough affectionate physical contact with each other.

“In other workplaces, touching a co-worker may get you fired,” writes Noah, “but at Pret you have to worry about not touching co-workers enough.”

There’s no sure way to measure the level of emotional labor being required of the American workforce, but it does appear to be a growing trend as employers become better at extracting additional productivity from low-wage service workers. In fact, some of those jobs—I’m thinking here of Walmart greeters—seem to consist of nothing but emotional labor.

Such a trend might seem rather benign, given how much we’ve come to value customer service from clerks and restaurant workers. But should a person’s livelihood really hinge on her ability to pretend that she loves her job? It may be slightly uncomfortable to be served coffee by someone who clearly hates working long hours for a minimum wage, but it’s unclear that the best way to deal with that discomfort is through escalating worker coercion—especially when employee rudeness or visible unhappiness helps to make their low wages and poor working conditions visible.

A 1993 report by the academics Blake E. Ashforth and Ronald H. Humphrey argued that “emotional labor stimulates pressure for the person to identify with the service role.” Anyone who has witnessed the belief-solidifying effects of repetitive prayer or statements of loyalty can see the truth in that claim. So enforced emotional labor might play a dual role: both improving customer service and enforcing loyalty and obedience to the employer. That in turn helps to explain why, as the Harvard Business Review reports, when men “shift to positions demanding higher emotional labor, they take a 5.7% cut in pay relative to occupations with lower emotional demands.”

How companies force 'emotional labor' on low-wage workers

Updated