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Rachel Ehrenberg
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Why enforced ‘service with a smile’ should be banned

Requiring employees to fake happiness takes a toll and doesn’t increase sales

man behind counter serving coffee

Requiring employees to maintain super-sized smiles while they work may hinder their ability to do their job and doesn’t make stores more money, research suggests.

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When you stumble into Starbucks for your morning coffee and are greeted by a super cheery barista inquiring about your day and your life in general, do you ever want to smack that smile off her face?

Well, pity the barista. In recent years the “service with a smile” mantra has risen to new heights; many workers in the service industry are expected to go beyond mere politeness, creating a “presence” or “sense of fun.” Consider the remarks of Clive Schee, CEO of the sandwich chain Pret A Manger:

“The first thing I look at,” he says, “is whether staff are touching each other — are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? Look, she’s just touched her colleague — squeezed her arm. If I see hands going up in the air, that’s a good sign. I can almost predict sales on body language alone.”

As a customer, you may find this relentless cheer uplifting or annoying (I err on the latter; please stop asking me about my day and just make my coffee). In the service industry, this “emotional labor,” to use the academic parlance, is typically a job requirement that’s enforced by management. Yet a large body of research suggests that emotional labor comes at a cost and one that’s primarily paid by the employee. I can’t speak to sales at Pret A Manger, but research also finds little evidence that the practice increases store profits.

“It’s sort of an invisible form of work,” says Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey, who has studied emotional labor for years. “But it has a real cost. We really want management to think about this: If this is really important to you as a company, if you value it, then you should train for it, and compensate for it. And you should create an environment that is supportive for the employee.”

Grandey isn’t talking about an initial smile when interacting with a customer. It’s maintaining extreme cheer over time and in response to all sorts of people and situations that can be challenging. Such scenarios are the focus of a recent review paper by Grandey and her colleagues that goes over decades of research examining the benefits and costs of emotional labor practices. The paper brings together studies from psychology and sociology that examine factors like burnout in call center workers and emotional exhaustion in bus drivers, and also includes experimental research examining the taxing nature of regulating emotions when performing tasks. Ultimately, Grandey and her colleagues conclude that emotional labor is an unjust practice that should be banned.

One cost of emotional labor is that it is labor: The self-regulation required to uphold false happiness for an extended period of time is taxing, akin to muscle exertion. (If you think maintaining poise and positivity is hard for a three-hour office holiday party, try doing it for an eight-hour shift.) This energetic cost depletes resources that could be dedicated to the task at hand (making that latte, quickly finding the shoes in the customer’s size).

Emotional fatigue that detracts from the ability to do other work isn’t the only problem. Unless the employee is truly a perpetually positive person, the act of suppressing true feelings and generating unfelt feelings leads to what psychologists call dissonance, a tense, uncomfortable and costly state that can lead to job dissatisfaction and burnout.

“It’s just stressful,” says Grandey. “It creates an internal tension that you really want to — but often can’t — resolve.”

And while customers may report that they are satisfied with an experience with a very friendly employee and that the experience might prompt them to return to the store, there’s little evidence linking such experiences and intentions to an uptick in sales.

“No one has done a study that shows that in stores where people put on bigger and more smiles, the stores make more money,” Grandey says.

In fact, when stores are busy — which is linked to increased sales — workers are more likely to focus on being efficient than being friendly, a no-nonsense approach that’s often appreciated by customers.

Think about a recent good shopping experience you’ve had. Maybe the employee you interacted with was nice, but I’m guessing that the experience was good because of factors related to the reason you were at the store: The check-out line moved quickly, you got the kind of coffee you wanted and fast, you were helped with finding a size, a question about a product was answered, super-sized smiles aside.

Grandey and her colleagues note, though, that there are some jobs where emotional labor may be a core job requirement — childcare workers or people who care for those who are mentally or physically ill, for example. But the dissonance that may arise for a coffee barista or fast food employee is likely to be less for workers in caring professions, who typically see the act of caring as part of their professional identity, not a tacked on requirement that otherwise has little to do with the job.

Because emotional labor comes at a cost, Grandey and her colleagues propose that organizations should not require employees to provide such cheer for free. If you require emotional labor, do it in a supportive, rather than controlling, environment: Train employees to cope with mistreatment from customers, offer down time that allows employees to re-charge, and give employees the opportunity to engage in interactions with their peers that are real. It’s a laudable and not Earth-shattering notion: Employees and customers should have equal status and the same rights to courtesy and fairness. The researchers point to the Ritz-Carlton: while a “warm and sincere greeting” is expected of employees, the company’s motto states: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

And speaking of credos, dear reader, “the customer is always right” (which was emblazoned above the exit to the kitchen at a restaurant I waitressed at many years ago) just isn’t true. Have a little empathy. We all want to be treated with respect, whether by our employers or the customers we serve.

Editor's Note: This blog post was corrected on September 10, 2015, to make clear that workers in caring professions are likely to experience less dissonance than baristas or fast food employees, not more.

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