Emotional Labor

Emotional labor is the regulation of felt and expressed emotions at work in the service of organizational goals. The construct of emotional labor is traced to the seminal work of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who studied the work of airline flight attendants and, specifically, the strategic use of emotion by flight attendants to create a desired experience for passengers. Her research revealed that the work role of flight attendants involved much more than the obvious duties of serving drinks and meals and ensuring passenger safety and comfort. Their job role also included the expression of emotions and the creation of feeling states in others; they were required to act friendly and upbeat to make passengers feel safe, happy, and comfortable. The significance of this early work is that it highlighted the fact that the management of emotions is an important organizational phenomenon, it is an effortful process for employees, and it may affect employee well-being.

Jobs that require emotional labor typically are those that (a) involve direct contact with the public, (b) require the employee to use emotions to produce an emotional state in another person, and (c) allow the organization to exert some control over the felt and/or displayed emotions of employees. Customer service jobs are those most typically associated with high demands for emotional labor. Service employees spend a great deal of time interacting with the public. Part of their job is to produce an emotional state such as happiness or delight in the customer, because with services, much of what the customer is evaluating is intangible. As such, the customer’s affective experience becomes part of his or her evaluation of the organization and its product. Finally, the organization exerts some control over the customer service agent’s emotional display. Employees are often trained on the types of emotions to display, and this behavior is enforced by peers, management, and customers.

Emotional labor is relevant, however, to many jobs that fall outside typical ideas of service work, and not all emotional labor is the management and display of positive emotions. Bill collectors and police detectives manage and display negative emotions to produce anxiety, fear, and compliance in debtors and suspects. Funeral directors display warmth and sadness in their job roles. And physicians engage in emotional labor by suppressing negative emotions to display the neutrality required of their jobs. In all of the above cases, the employee ultimately is managing his or her displayed emotions: expressive behavior including, but not limited to, facial expressions, vocalizations, and posture. This expressive behavior communicates important information to the receiver and can be viewed as a control move, an intentional means of manipulating the situation to produce a desired response in the receiver. Emotional labor is, as such, a tool of influence: it is intended to produce responses in others that are favorable to the individual and/or the organization.

The Process of Emotional Labor

Display Rules

Because displayed emotions are an important component of many jobs, display rules are created to serve organizational and professional goals. Display rules are norms about which emotions are appropriate to express in a particular job or organization. Flight attendants, for example, learn the importance of expressing good cheer even to rude passengers. Scholars also have described organizational feeling rules, or norms about the emotions a person is supposed to feel in a given situation. Salespersons for Mary Kay cosmetics, for example, are taught not just to display good cheer but that it is important to feel enthusiastic about their products. Most current emotional labor research focuses on display rules, as norms in service organizations typically specify the emotions one is supposed to display publicly. Whether the norms are about expressed or felt emotions, how-ever, it is the existence of display rules that makes emotional labor necessary.

Surface Acting and Deep Acting

To display the emotions required by organizational display rules, employees may engage in one of two processes: surface acting or deep acting. Surface acting involves faking or “painting on” the appropriate emotion without any change in corresponding internal feelings. A busy waiter who smiles despite the rage he feels at a rude customer is engaging in surface acting. In deep acting, the employees induce the required emotions in themselves, such that the expressed emotion is not fake, but is a true emotion that has been created to serve an organizational end. Bill collectors, for example, may take a moment to create in themselves a slight feeling of anger or annoyance before placing a phone call, so that they can more naturally express urgency and irritation toward the person on the other end of the phone.

Because emotional labor is fundamentally a process of emotion regulation, recent theoretical work now frames surface and deep acting within the broader framework of emotion regulation. Emotions can be regulated by two processes. Antecedent-focused emotion regulation acts on emotion-eliciting stimuli before they can produce a full emotional response. An example of antecedent-focused coping is cognitive reappraisal: thinking about the situation differently so that it does not produce undesired emotions. Physicians engage in cognitive reappraisal when they cognitively transform patients from real people into analytic and clinical objects to ward off any inappropriate feelings that might interfere with their required neutral affective displays. Antecedent-focused coping is analogous to deep acting. Emotions also can be regulated through response-focused coping. Response-focused coping works only on changing the outward expression of emotion, not the experience of emotion. Suppressing the display of negative emotions in the face is an example of response-focused coping and is analogous to surface acting.

Antecedents of Emotional Labor

Conceptualizing emotional labor as the regulation of emotion to conform to organizational display rules, the antecedents of emotional labor, or those things leading to greater or lesser degrees of emotion regulation, can be thought of broadly in terms of (a) situational and contextual demands on displayed emotions, or (b) factors that influence an individual’s felt emotions.

Situational Demands

Certain jobs have more demanding emotional labor requirements than others: the clerk at an exclusive bou-tique likely has more intense display rules than does the cashier in a discount chain store. Organizations develop and maintain display rule norms through recruitment and selection, socialization, and rewards and punishment. Research on Disney’s theme parks reveals intense recruitment and socialization, including formal training, on many issues pertaining to emotional displays, including smiling and proper greeting of park guests. Reward and punishment is common in, for example, the use of secret shoppers who record employee smiles and demeanor.

Situational demands also come from the nature of interactions with customers. In jobs where interactions with customers are more frequent, are of longer duration, and require a greater variety of emotions to be displayed, the demands for regulating emotions will be stronger. Direct customer demands also influence the need to regulate emotion. Some research suggests that customer social cues, including gender, enhance emotional labor demands (males appear to receive more positive emotional displays than females). The pace of the work environment also affects demands for the regulation of emotion. Research has consistently shown that as store busyness (in terms of customers being served) increases, the display of positive emotion decreases. It appears that during busy times, norms emphasize speed and efficiency and deemphasize the display of positive emotions during interactions with customers. It seems likely that during busy times, employees also feel greater stress and negative emotion, which would make emotion regulation more difficult.

Felt Emotions

Perhaps not surprisingly, employees are not always successful in regulating their emotional displays. Despite efforts to conceal them, real feelings do leak out and can be perceived by others. This is particularly true when employees engage in surface acting without changing true, underlying affect. Therefore, employees who experience higher levels of emotions that are incongruent with display rules will find it necessary to engage in greater emotional labor. An important caveat to this statement is that this is only true to the degree that employees are committed to organizational display rules.

Felt emotions are also influenced by affective events in the workplace that influence employee positive or negative emotion. If these events produce emotional states that are incongruent with display rules, more emotion regulation will be required. Store busyness, with its potential to create negative affect, and an interaction with a rude customer are two examples of negative affective events.

Outcomes of Emotional Labor

Effects on Employees

A major premise of the early work on emotional labor was that it can have a detrimental impact on employee well-being. When there is a discrepancy between felt emotions and displayed emotions, a state of emotional dissonance is proposed to exist, and, theoretically, this is a stress-inducing state. Individuals who report engaging in surface acting should be, in theory, experiencing emotional dissonance, because they report changing the expression of emotion but not the underlying affect.

In general, evidence for the existence of emotional dissonance and the negative effects of emotional labor is mixed. Laboratory research clearly shows that suppressing the expression of felt negative emotion has detrimental effects on physiological and cognitive functioning. Further, emotional labor is a type of self-regulation, and ample evidence demonstrates that self-regulation is an effortful process that can divert cognitive resources from other tasks. Therefore, it is logical to suspect that emotional labor taxes cognitive resources and could potentially hinder performance in other domains. For example, a bank teller who is focused on maintaining a positive emotional display would be expected to make more errors, and laboratory research on emotional labor appears to support this position. The generalizability of this research, however—particularly the social psychological research on general emotion regulation—to field settings where employees are frequently called on to amplify positive emotions (in addition to suppressing negative ones) has been questioned.

Several studies have demonstrated links between emotional labor demands and stress outcomes, yet frequently these studies are based on self-reports, and recent research suggests that, across several studies, no consistent differences in stress outcomes have been found in individuals in “people work” jobs (those with higher emotional labor demands) than in other jobs. Additionally, several studies have found associations among surface acting, stress outcomes, and the display of positive emotions as reported by observers. Although promising, this research has yet to establish that the negative effects associated with surface acting result from emotional dissonance per se.

In sum, it is clear that emotion regulation in the service of organizational goals can, in some cases, tax cognitive and coping resources. On the other hand, research also suggests that over time, some emotional labor may become routine and automatic, requiring little effort. Surface acting is associated with negative outcomes for employees, but no research has convincingly demonstrated that emotional dissonance, or the discrepancy between felt and displayed emotions, is the cause of these negative outcomes. This is perhaps the most fruitful area at this moment for future research on emotional labor.

Finally, emotional labor also can produce positive outcomes for employees. Emotional labor is a control move ultimately designed to influence others. Successful emotional labor may give employees feelings of competence and mastery in their ability to control the emotions of a situation. It likely contributes to successful job performance and financial gains—for example, when the salesperson successfully uses emotions to generate excitement and purchases from a client.

Outcomes for Customers and Organizations

Because customers evaluate a service as an experience, the display of positive, integrative emotions by employees can lead customers to more positive evaluations of the service and organization. Customer mood may also be affected directly (and perhaps outside of conscious awareness) by the process of emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the process of mimicking and synchronizing emotional expressions between interaction partners. As a result, interaction partners converge emotionally: One person can “catch” the affect of the other. Research has shown that customers interacting with employees expressing positive emotions find themselves in a better mood and subsequently evaluate the organization’s services more positively. Emotional contagion processes have also been shown within teams and between leaders and followers.


Emotions were, at one time, viewed as the antithesis of rationality in organizations; they were viewed as a distraction that should be minimized. Today, there is awareness that emotions are important and can serve useful organizational ends. Emotional labor, the regulation of felt and expressed emotion by employees, is an effortful, learned process. Emotional labor, like any behavior that taxes resources, may have some detrimental effects on employee stress and well-being. The nature and role of emotional dissonance in causing these detrimental effects remains unclear.


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  4. Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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  6. Rafaeli, A., & Sutton, R. I. (1987). Expression of emotion as part of the work role. Academy of Management Review, 12, 23-37.

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