Emotional Labor and the Compassion Police

No Oscar The Grouch? Fuck this place!

One of the worst customers I had to deal with when I worked at Kohl’s wasn’t so just because they were a little annoying, there was nothing particularly egregious about who they were as a person. It also had to do with the time of the year (the holiday season) and the fact that they were so displeased with my customer service that they decided to contact my manager about it. So I ended up getting chewed out by my manager over the phone because I wasn’t “nice” enough to this person. I didn’t end up getting much in the way of formal penalties but the message was clear: You better act fucking happy and mean it.

To be fair, I don’t remember too much why the customer was annoying. I remember being confused about what they were looking for or where exactly it was and trying to get someone to help them but for some reason failing. I was probably also annoyed (and this goes for the customer too) because of the holiday season. Still, it didn’t really become unpleasant until my manager decided that my emotional labor just wasn’t involved in the transaction.

I’m sure the customer left unhappy and I shed tears to this day about what a “loss to the culture” that was.

More to the point, this concept of “emotional labor” is a way to express the mechanism whereby worker’s attitudes and expressions are managed and regulated by their bosses. This is especially the case in low-paying retail work. Thankfully, I didn’t run afoul of the emotional labor boundaries too often because I was able to maintain a streamlined “bitter content” with most interactions.

There was one other time I can think where I didn’t give the right sort of emotional labor.

When I worked at Walgreens it was (surprise!) the holiday season and there was a long line of customers for me to deal with. I was a cashier (at Kohl’s I was just a more general floor employee or whatever) and I had already dealt with a lot of people. A bit of background for those who don’t know, I have aspergers (which is a mild form of autism) and so I get overwhelmed by social situations much easier than most people do.

So this being the case, I’d already exhausted a bunch of my energy in my work shift and I was trying to get this guy’s cigarette pack. I either misheard him or just got confused and picked the wrong one and he raised his tone with me. He may have also insulted me in a small way but I don’t remember for sure. Anyhow, I reach to get the box he does want and throw it on the counter. It wasn’t a big throw but it was notable and the customer in question certainly took notice.

All of the sudden I was the bad guy for losing my temper in a really minor way and the customer bore no responsibility because he’s the customer. So I got taken to the back room and to be fair, my manager was actually (relatively) nice about it. She basically said something to the effect of, “Hey, if you’re feeling overwhelmed just call someone to take over for a few minutes. That guy is a total asshole but we can’t have you losing your cool over people like him either.”

So she was…nicer than the other manager we’ll say. But it was still a regulation on how I could use my own feelings while I was at the workplace. Which isn’t to say that any and all such regulations are inherently wrong but it’s worth keeping in mind what it was about at the end of the day: my temper and my emotions and not much else.

These scenarios aren’t odd or new and in fact they’re situations that play out for many different employees in many different companies and in various ways.

Back in early February MSNBC reported on two examples of this: Starbucks and Pret A Manager.

Let’s use each as a case study of how emotional labor works and see what is so bad about this form of control.

Case Study 1: Starbucks

MSNBC explains:

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.”

They link to an article in The Nation by Josh Eidelson which goes into more detail:

The day after Christmas, [Howard] Schultz announced an unconventional effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: for a couple of days, DC-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups. “Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog. He also plugged the Fix the Debt website and, for good measure, name-checked the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary.

Where do you even start with how insulting this is?

One of the things that strikes me is the rather obvious presumption that somehow writing words on cups is going to solve major and national political issues. This sounds like some sort of preschool activity that the teachers would encourage to have children make believe they’re solving problems.

Then again it isn’t really Schultz who is writing these trite corporate slogans that promise to somehow make us all come together. It’s the workers who are going to lead us to a future of us singing kumbaya while drinking out overpriced lattes and talking about “conscious capitalism”.

Now, full disclosure, I go to Starbucks once in a blue moon. I’ve had their overpriced food and it’s usually pretty serviceable. I’ll even go further with this disclosure and say that I totally understand why emotional labor is so valued.

For example, there was a situation where my EBT card wasn’t accepted by the cashier and the cashier started empathizing with me. Nothing big or major but he was like, “Ah yeah man, I hate it when that happens. Isn’t it the worst? Sorry about that.”

And that led me to buy the stuff anyhow.

So yeah, it’s pretty clear that people’s ability to be empathetic or be genuinely happy or whatever during their shift can make customers more or less likely to buy the product/s in question. So yeah, I get it. I get why you’d want your employees to be friendly and considerate with customers. Then again, I just think that’s basic manners or whatever neurotypicals call them.

Going back to Starbucks though, Eidelson points out that this campaign also sends the message that the working class should be the one to bring the message of everyone coming together. Forget about the bosses having to take some responsibility or maybe Bank of America letting a few people keeping their homes or what have you. No, let’s put all of the weight of the national debt on the people least likely to have anything to do with the financial crisis of 2008.

And to be clear here, by the working class I mean folks who are living paycheck to paycheck. I mean people who work blue collar jobs and every now and then need some help from friends and family member. I don’t mean well-to-do white people or folks who are fairly comfortable in their business suits and so on.

Let’s look at what else Schultz thought was a good idea:

Schultz’s blog post was quickly followed by a mass e-mail from Fix the Debt, bragging that “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.”

CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced. (Starbucks assured CNN that workers could decline to participate. But not all who are drafted will risk becoming a conscientious objector.)

The ability to ascribe specific and intentional symbolic efforts on the part of the CEO down to each and every barista is such a dehumanizing effort. To start with, how on Earth does someone have the audacity to proclaim that some CEO’s effort speaks for everyone who’s involved in it? What sense does that make? Does everyone who goes along with a given action have to agree with all of it to get involved?

That second part is important since it explains why this transfer of intentions from the top to the bottom of the corporate chain is nonsense. It completely ignores the fact that this chain is lateral and not horizontal. That is to say that these workers are largely doing these things out of social duress. Even if it was a bit more laid back and the companies weren’t as pushy do you think workers wouldn’t feel some sort of external pressure to conform to this sad attempt at marketing?

Oh, sorry, I mean more “conscious” with capitalism.

And look, there are ways around this kind of bullshit. But first off your workers have to be at least informally organized in not giving a shit about the given thing that the bosses are asking.

In Kohl’s we were supposed to get certain people to sign up for whatever a given amount of times and as far as I can remember we hardly ever made the goal. And that was largely because most workers just didn’t give a shit. The store was in awful shape and most employees who were there didn’t really care about it in any active way. I mean, sure there were exceptions every now and then (especially with the managers as you’d expect) but for the most part that held true and thus the goals were often not met.

But you can’t expect every store to be another Kohl’s. And most Starbucks aren’t in such a state in my experience.

And as I mentioned before Starbucks isn’t alone in this sort of emotional coercion which this article reaffirms:

The Come Together episode illustrates the rise of political coercion in the workplace. That trend drew rare attention last year with a series of stories about companies that told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts). In the Citizens United era, companies have even greater freedom to impose their politics on employees, from convening a mandatory meeting devoted to political “persuasion” to firing an employee for affixing the wrong candidate’s bumper sticker to her car.

Speaking of other companies engaging in this, let’s take a look at Pret A Manager.

Case Study 2: Pret A Manager

MCNBC once again gives us a nice basic overview:

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.”

That last bit really weirds me out. People who probably hardly know each other or else might only know each other on a fairly casual basis are encouraged to touch each other…?

I often hear complaints about the way managerial policies are Puritan-esque with the ways they treat the interactions of genders and particularly with regard to touching. But if that sort of stuff is Puritan then what is this? I am imagining some sort of authoritarian hippie commune with many compassion cops (more on this concept later) going around and saying, “We’re very concerned about your feelings and that you haven’t been expressing them lately. Do you need a hug?”

Whatever it is, it creeps me the hell out. I’d really like to not be touched by people I hardly know and folks who probably want nothing to do with me outside of the workplace. I mean, why is that so hard to understand? Of all the things that managers could be oblivious about why does it have to be people’s enthusiasm for being touched or not?

And just in case you don’t know, Pret A Manager is a London-based sandwich shop. Lately it’s been spreading to the East Coast like an awkward and overly-warm hPrug that no one had any idea they wanted.

Going back to The New Republic article, Noah goes on to discuss emotional labor as a form suppressing ones feelings in return for the product you’re expected to get from your job.

One of the most striking passages to me from Noah was this one:

Pret doesn’t merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too. It will not employ anyone who is “here just for the money.” Noting that one Pret worker in London got fired soon after he tried to start a union—the company maintained it was for making homophobic comments—Myerscough suggested the worker’s true offense was being unhappy enough to want to start a union, since “Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy.” The sin commenceth with the thought, not the deed. (emphasis added)

Now, maybe this’ll shock you, but I’m not a religious person. It’s just never struck me as something that’s very meaningful or useful for my life. If it helps you be a good person and you don’t use it to manipulate people out of their money, start cults or encourage blind worship of authority figures, then hey, all the power to you.

But even with this lack of religiosity (for lack of a better word) I still find the concept of a metaphorical soul interesting and worth taking a look at. I’m not sure whether I believe in some sort of fixed human nature and even if I did I’m not sure how confident I am that we as fallible individuals can really perceive it. Maybe we can notice general trends and make some vague claims about what individuals are likely to do or want in a given situation. But even that seems really tricky to me.

Regardless, this notion that work takes your soul or the essence of who you are is a pretty striking and powerful. I certainly felt like I often left bits of my psyche behind after a particularly bad day at work. As if a certain bit of enthusiasm and even joy for life that I may have otherwise felt or had for it was taken away from me.

Perhaps that’s being overly dramatic but if you had to go through this, you might feel similar:

Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A “mystery shopper” visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.

And these cops require literal stroking.

Okay, first off, gross.

Second, we’ve talked about “mystery shoppers” (or as James Wilson called them, “secret shoppers”) before so anyone familiar with that might remember just how noxious a form of social control at is.

At this point Proudhon’s quote about governance seems to apply just as much (if not more at times) to work:

To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.

To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.

It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored.

That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

(The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, Epilogue)

You could just as easily say, To be WORKING is to be “watched, inspected, spied upon, directed…” and a lot of it would still hold true.

As Bob Black says in The Abolition of Work:

The degradation which most workers experience on the job is the sum of assorted indignities which can be denominated as “discipline.” Foucault has complexified this phenomenon but it is simple enough. Discipline consists of the totality of totalitarian controls at the workplace—surveillance, rotework, imposed work tempos, production quotas, punching-in and -out, etc. Discipline is what the factory and the office and the store share with the prison and the school and the mental hospital. It is something historically original and horrible. It was beyond the capacities of such demonic tators of yore as Nero and Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible. For all their bad intentions they just didn’t have the machinery to control their subjects as thoroughly as modern despots do. Discipline is the distinctively diabolical modern mode of control, it is an innovative intrusion which must be interdicted at the earliest opportunity. (emphasis in original)

There is a great overlap between being governed and being commanded by your boss, whether they’re doing it emotionally or in some other way.

Quoted in Noah’s article, Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy says that the reason the bosses get away with these sorts of demands “…is that it is such a buyer’s market in the labor market—because of so many unemployed workers per job—that employers can get away with a lot of demands on their workers that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible.”

In other words, we don’t live in a free market. And leftists who spend their time complaining or sneering about how free markets lead to these results are conflating the economic system of historical capitalism with what some right-wing libertarians seem to mistake for their love of capitalism. Just minus the government regulation and keeping the class structure and economic distribution largely the same.

At this point I think it’s worth considering, with all of these costs to the procedure are there any benefits?

Emotional Labor: The Costs and Benefits

Andrew O’Connell writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2010 discussed the economic benefits (or lack thereof) of enforced emotional labor:

When men move to jobs that require increased cognitive labor, they get an 8.8% wage boost, on average. But when they shift to positions demanding higher emotional labor, they take a 5.7% cut in pay relative to occupations with lower emotional demands, according to Devasheesh P. Bhave of Concordia University and Theresa M. Glomb of the University of Minnesota. (With women, the story is similar, but different: They get no financial reward for greater emotional labor either, but they don’t get a penalty — their wages stay flat when they make a transition to higher emotional labor.)

As far as I can tell, the benefits of compulsory emotional labor seems to come from psychological benefits the bosses get. Now, I’m sure there are people that enjoy “method acting” way more than I ever did when I did when I was in retail. And hey, if you think you’re going to get on your own sitcom about bring broke and doing retail then by all means, act.

But for the most part, I don’t see this sort of “acting” a very helpful way to deal with work.

My strategy was to treat people as I’d normally treat them and with little regard to company policy (which I usually didn’t read or formally acknowledge most of the time) and that usually (the two examples beforehand not withstanding) worked out okay. I don’t see why you couldn’t treat customers with the same general respect one would be expected to treat a perfectly nice stranger and count out bad unless your boss is really strict or something.

Now, if the customer is being an asshole then I’d understand not having as much courtesy (though I doubt your bosses would or will). But generally speaking, channeling the frustration you have about your job on the customer is not going to be a long-term winning strategy, to say the least.

Part of the emotional compliance BS is to make workers feel like they “belong” with whatever job they have. It’s not the job that is at fault or the economy it’s you as a worker and your crummy attitude that need to be fixed. All of these things play back in to what I was talking about earlier in my situations where I got in trouble. It wasn’t the customer’s fault for being unhelpful or rude but mine for not following proper procedure and that is all that matters.

This whole process is actually a total forgoing of the workers feelings for whatever they can be sacrificed for. For some sort of big social statement that is really vague and self-serving, for really rude customers, for some social justice cause the CEO presumes others want to hear about while they’re shopping and so on.

O’Connell also rightly points out that even though all of these emotional boundaries and restrictions will cause you to have a lot of stress and perhaps ruin your relationships that often isn’t what you are being paid for. Unless your a Wal-Mart door greeter or something then only a part of your job is filled with excessive social niceties.

And I don’t think I’m alone here when I say that I am often more creeped out than reassured when people are faking it.

There are two different ways of faking this sort of job-centered happiness that first come to mind. There’s the depressed/resentful contentment which is what I had. These are the people who’ll give you the basic hospitality or mannerisims you’d expect but hardly try to force a smile or go an extra foot, let alone a mile.

Then there’s the people who look like they got gassed by the Joker.

The people who are very exclamatory and want to please you every second and seem way too excited to be in the crummy store that they think so highly of. This can be a way for people to lie to themselves, it can be a way to brown nose the boss and it can also be people’s desperate struggle to fit in and try to get by on the meager wages their paid. Don’t immediately assume what these people’s intentions are, although chances are good it isn’t pleasant.

Conclusion: Here Come The Compassion Police

All of these polices, these attitudes (informal and formal) as well as the judgments we make about people in the workforce come together to make a really oppressive environment. One in which you can expect your enthusiasm to be policed until it matches up with the company standard. Does this make you happy? Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the customer is happy and left feeling warm and fuzzy about their newly bought latte.

The idea of “compassion police” was originally termed around enthusiasm but I think this works just as well. Either way, the connotation should be pretty clear: The worker’s mood needs to be tightly watched, restricted, regulated, put down or raised up as the bosses deem appropriate and so on. Their mood needs to match certain codes, regulatory decisions made by us with none of their consent or approval involved and it needs to be just right.

I can only imagine the horror that people who are really trying to fake it have to endure when they get a call from their manager. And then they find out that they’re actually being too friendly. In which case the employee seems to be up against a rock and a hard place. This is especially true if they are in a low-paying retail job.

One of the things that the MSNBC article closes with is whether we should be comfortable with the fact that people are determined how good they are at acting excited about their job. Should all of their livelihood depend on such an act of deception to their employer, fellow employees, customers and anyone else?

It’s certainly no picnic to deal with workers who clearly hate their job. But then again, I usually feel closer to them then I do with people who are trying to care when they clearly don’t.

I’m not trying to tell you what you specifically should do in your own job but be aware of these policies and ideas and try to be careful if you’re going to subvert them.

Or hey, maybe put on a smile as you subvert whatever your bosses are asking, positivity is important after all!

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on Tumblr

6 thoughts on “Emotional Labor and the Compassion Police

  1. Pingback: Manual Labor vs. Retail Labor - Abolish Work

  2. Pingback: Marshawn Lynch vs. Emotional Labor - Abolish Work

  3. Pingback: Being Precarious and Anti-Work - Abolish Work

  4. Pingback: Purpose can be a Dangerous Thing - Abolish Work

  5. Pingback: Emotional Compliance in the Modern Workplace - Abolish Work

  6. Pingback: Be Your Own "Team Player" - Abolish Work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *