Emotional Labor: Can You Have Service with a Smile Without the Cost?

The current list of Fortune 500 companies lists more in the service sector and fewer in manufacturing than ever before. As we have shifted to a service sector economy, we’ve started to analyze what it takes for employees to not only meet job expectations but also thrive in a customer-facing role. Service, at its core, means fulfilling the needs of others – and serving others, whether in foodservice, healthcare, hospitality, or business services – can come with emotional, physical, and psychological costs.

Waitress serving customer at the coffee shop

Success in a service role requires displaying appropriate emotions at the right time: those emotions that build customer or stakeholder satisfaction and loyalty to your business.  In order to do this, employees have to remain acutely aware of their own emotions and often override them to display the appropriate mood or attitude at the time it is needed.  This is called emotional labor. An almost universally understood example is a restaurant server needing to show concern and understanding to a guest who is angry about a perceived fault in service that the server (and perhaps others) might see as unreasonable. But emotional labor can become even more complex and is demanded of anyone needing to subordinate their natural emotional reactions to serve a customer or be a team player. Empathizing with a customer or analyzing a situation from the customer’s perspective, as well as suppressing or faking an emotion, triggers a physical stress response: our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we secrete stress hormones like cortisol – just as if there was a physical threat to our safety. Sustained activation over time has a physical and mental cost which leads to burnout, poor customer service, and turnover.

How to Hire People Who Flourish in Service Roles

You have probably encountered people who prefer customer-facing roles, and thrive with the challenges they present. Those who thrive likely enjoy caring for others and are also equipped with strategies that help them manage these demands. When we meet the emotional demands of our jobs successfully, and provide exceptional customer service, we often receive positive feedback (e.g., smiling and positive communication) from the customer and our team – improving our physical and mental well-being and reducing stress. Unfortunately the reverse is also true: if we struggle to meet the emotional demands of providing service we are less likely to be successful – and more likely to receive negative feedback. In this way, people who are poorly prepared for the demands of a service role can find themselves in a negative spiral with increasingly negative customer reactions, exhaustion, and less resources to manage difficult demands.

We know there are specific strategies people use to alter their emotions at work. The more strategies we have at our disposal, and the extent to which we deftly leverage them, strongly influences our ability to build loyal stakeholders: whether that’s a customer, patient, or team member. One strategy, Deep Acting (which we often call Customer Empathy), is when you work to authentically experience the emotion that is required of the situation. This could come from empathizing with the customer and, when you aren’t able to understand their perspective, reflecting on their pain or a time you were upset to more authentically reach the desired emotion. For example, while a front desk employee at a doctor’s office may believe a patient’s demand is unreasonable, she can perhaps relate to a time she was similarly distraught and use that experience to experience empathy (deep acting) to deliver a response that she would want to receive.  Sometimes, that empathy or reframing just isn’t possible and you have to “fake it until you make it.” This strategy is called Surface Acting, and while it shouldn’t be your only strategy, it can help you succeed in meeting customer demands.

We’ve taken the science behind these emotional labor strategies to create a pre-employment assessment that can screen for the ability to provide exceptional service without experiencing the strain of emotional labor. Our assessment presents scenarios like the ones below (the first scenario is part of our customer service assessment and the second for healthcare) and asks candidates to indicate how likely they would use each of several strategies for managing the demands of the situation to understand exactly how a candidate will manage the demands of the position. This provides hiring managers with a better understanding of the strategies a particular candidate would use on the job.

Sample of Situational Judgement question from a Pre-Employment Assessment by Corvirtus
Sample of Situational Judgement question from a Pre-Employment Assessment by Corvirtus

Each situation, whether for healthcare or service, was derived from our research and subject matter interviews with professionals in these roles. From using this assessment in service positions we know candidates who pass this assessment achieve the following:

  • 27% greater service or care to patients and customers
  • 31% more likely to meet expectations for performance
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Next Steps

Measuring the strategies necessary to meet emotional labor demands can help organizations build teams that can grow and develop over time. There is currently a need for workers with the “soft skills” required to thrive in our service-driven economy. In addition, there is also a ‘middle-skills’ gap, or a lack of people who can fill positions that require skills and experience that can be acquired on the job. Hiring for qualities like the ability to thrive in a service environment can set your organization up for success by ensuring your team has the qualities needed to excel in a variety of situations – whether that’s interacting with others on their team, or adapting to changing roles and service or care environments.

New to assessments or considering adding assessments to your hiring process? We’ve put together a resource of information to help in our complimentary eBook, The What, Why, and When of Assessments.

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