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Emotional Labor Doesn’t Pay – Andrew O’Connell – Research – Harvard Business Review

septiembre 29, 2010

Why is it that we pay people handsomely for analyzing financial data, say, but not for the much harder work of smiling in the face of an insult?

Every day, we demand that people display emotions they’re not feeling. We require teachers to be patient, police officers to be tough, doormen to be friendly. Without this “emotional labor,” to use the wonderfully evocative term coined by Arlie Hochschild of UC Berkeley, civilization would be uncivilized. Life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

But we won’t pay for this emotional labor. At least, we won’t pay much.

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.)

So why do men get dinged for placing themselves in positions where they have to be even-tempered with bratty pupils or fawning with arrogant jerks? As the researchers point out, many positions requiring emotional labor are “vocations” — callings — rather than just jobs. And we all know employers can get away with paying less for a calling, even if there’s a paltry supply of candidates. (The Roman Catholic priest shortage is a great example: The compensation is still just as lousy as it was when there was no shortage.)

But have you noticed that employers in distinctly nonvocational areas of the economy have been acting as though their jobs were callings too? Starbucks’s careers page says “We’re dedicated to serving ethically sourced coffee, caring for the environment and giving back to the communities where we do business.” Even Dunkin’ Donuts says “Our employees are the fuel that helps America run.” (Some companies are more convincing about this than others.)

Employers love it when workers treat jobs as vocations — in a perfect employer-centered world, all jobs would be callings — and not just because of the wage issue. In a vocation, workers are committed, engaged, self-sacrificing, and intensely focused on customers (read: pupils, patients, parishioners). And the workers really feel those things. They’re not just doing “surface acting,” to use Hochschild’s term for the forced smile you might see on the face of a salesman in a department store.

In fact, the emotional engagement that frontline workers bring to callings is very much what companies generally demand from management, not labor. So the “Pouring coffee is a calling” assertion is just part of an effort to make labor think and behave like management. But without management’s pay.

Which brings us to the question of why, if men’s wages tend to drop when they move to positions requiring greater emotional labor, compensation universally increases when people get promoted from the front line to management, where a lot of very complex emotional labor is called for.

In an email conversation with me, Theresa Glomb noted that there are many high-emotional-labor jobs that pay a lot better than low-emotional-labor jobs. “For example, lawyers receive higher wages than data-entry operators even though legal jobs have higher emotional-labor demands. One reason for this is that the cognitive demands for lawyers are higher than those for data-entry operators, and the positive wage returns to these cognitive demands outweigh the negative wage effects of higher emotional-labor demands.”

In other words, when you get promoted, you’re being paid for your cognitive labor, not your emotional labor. So even though it’s emotional labor that causes the ulcers and the divorces and sometimes gives managers transcendent joy in their work, that’s not what you’re being paid for. The emotional labor of your managerial job is seen as your calling, and in our society, you can’t expect to be paid for a calling.

Andrew O’Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.

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