„Service with a Smile“ is (un)healthy

Recently, in the first class on an ICE from Hannover to Cologne: On the request to show the tickets, a bad-tempered passenger explodes: “The trains are never on schedule, the coffee is lousy, and the air condition is way too cold!” With a professional smile, the attendant fully caters to the passenger and after some appreciative sentences the passenger gets in a better mood. Although the attendant might not be aware of, s/he has just performed emotional labor.

Emotional labor occurs if a person needs to suppress his/her actual emotions due to display rules or due to the person’s occupational role. In this regard, previous research about customer aggression has focused on emotional labor (Dormann & Zapf, 2004; Hochschild, 1979; Hülsheger & Schewe, 2011). A typical example comes from aviation: If a customer (aggressively) complains about a cold meal or the turbulences, flight attendants need to react friendly, smiling, and professionally, although they have either no understanding for the complaints or the same negative emotions (e.g., fear). With regard to the former, flight attendants have to react friendly and professionally in order to convey the customer a positive feeling (display rules of the company); with regard to the latter, flight attendants have to react friendly and professionally to avoid panic (implicit rule of the occupational role). However, both engender emotional dissonance. Following the conservation of resources (Hobfoll, 1989), emotional labor and/or emotional dissonance diminishes a person’s resources which leads to stress. Over time, stress leads to burnout (e.g., Crawford et al., 2010), lower task performance, and higher turnover intention (e.g., Crawford et al., 2010; Podsakoff et al. 2007).

The negative outcomes of emotional labor have been especially studied in the service sector, for example, call center, gastronomy, and retailing. In addition, studies with other samples have shown similar negative outcomes of emotional labor, for example, in the financial sector, nursing, and public service such as, employment agencies or police (e.g., Dudenhöffer & Dormann, 2015). Verbal customer aggressions and emotional labor occur likewise in these occupations, although the term “customer” needs to be adapted to credit receivers, patients, job seekers, and suspects or victims of crimes.

The consequences of emotional labor and emotional dissonance respectively have recently been summarized by a DAK-study (Spiegel Online, 2016): above-average absenteeism and high costs. Besides burnout there are further psychological costs. In addition to emotional dissonance, employees might have a feeling of unfairness which diminishes their job autonomy, self-determination, and commitment. Strict display rules of always reacting accommodating, friendly, and professionally are the main reasons for these additional psychological costs.

But how can one reduce the negative consequences of emotional labor?

While previous research dealt with the phenomenon of emotional labor and its outcomes in general, little is known about possible methods reducing the negative consequences. Obviously, companies cannot avoid customer aggressions and emotional labor. However, a recent study offers a modest proposal for some methods to reduce the outcomes of emotional labor (Grandey, Rupp, & Brice, 2015). In general, companies should ban formalized emotional requirements and display rules. Instead, Grandey and colleagues (2015) propose the following alternatives:

(a) Companies should make the customer responsible for a friendly exchange. As an example of this idea, the authors refer to a sign of a French wine bar: the sign indicates that the coffee costs more when it is rudely ordered instead of an accompanied “good morning” or “please” (Peregrine, 2013).

(b) Communicating dignity and ethical treatment to customers might enhance the self-esteem of the own employees as well. As an example, the Ritz-Carlton has the new motto “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen“ (The Ritz-Carlton, 2015); thus, respect and courtesy are expected of both employees and customers. The “customer is not always right and should not assume that he/she is regardless of his/her behavior” (Grandey et al., 2015, p. 780).

(c) Instead of measuring and rewarding only customer satisfaction, companies should begin to reward the effort of their employees – and this is emotional labor besides their advisory service. Even extraverts and good-humored employees have sometimes problems with certain customers; hence, measuring and rewarding the emotional effort seems to be more important than the customer satisfaction.

(d) Existing control mechanisms and monitoring can be used to support the employees. For example, call center employees might view monitoring positively when it is perceived as a form of support during a call with aggressive customers rather than control (Holmann, Chissick, & Totterdell, 2002).

It remains to be seen whether and how the quality initiative of the Deutsche Bahn influences the emotional labor of its employees in the daily business. Given the empirical evidence for the outcomes of emotional labor, alternatives and new attempts seem to be worthwhile in order to reduce the potential risks of emotional labor among all occupational groups.


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