Summary: Max Belasco explains “Emotional Labor” and how it relates to the workplace and your rights when you are subjected to negative conditions. It refers to the work we do every day to keep our emotions in check when dealing with coworkers or customers – even if they are behaving in an unfair, hostile, or abusive way.
Managing your emotions at work is a labor issue and something worth talking to your coworkers about.
I am an IT worker at a large university. One day I receive a call to our helpline, and on the other end is a frustrated faculty member whose office computer will not turn on. I offer a few suggestions over the phone, but these only end up making the professor even more irate.
Instead of allowing things to escalate I decide to visit the professor’s office, where I get an earful about the poor condition of the computers we maintain. I keep a smile on my face, acknowledging how frustrating the situation must be for the professor, while in the corner of my eye I notice that the monitor for the computer was unplugged. I quickly get the computer up and running, assure the faculty member that it happens to everyone – even though it does not — and move on with the rest of my day.
Does any part of that story sound familiar to you? Maybe you are not in charge of turning monitors on for faculty members, but perhaps you helped a student register for classes and their anxiety about not getting all their classes led them to be rude to you. Or maybe an administrator was condescending to you about something, and you “took the high road” and did not show your anger towards them.
All of these are examples of a concept called “Emotional Labor”. It refers to the work we do every day to keep our emotions in check when dealing with coworkers or customers – even if they are behaving in an unfair, hostile, or abusive way.
The term emotional labor was coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild, who in 1979 authored the book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. In The Managed Heart, Hochschild details how workers in many industries are expected by their employers to suppress their feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, and humiliation in order to maintain a certain business environment and not to upset customers.
One key example that Hochschild uses in the book is the case of flight attendants, who often undergo training in how to manage irate customers on a plane. Despite their main job responsibility being passenger safety, flight attendants often have their job characterized as being little more than waitresses because they may serve passengers refreshments and snacks.
As one flight attendant said to Hochschild in the book, “if they call me ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘little lady’ in a certain tone of voice, I feel demeaned, like they don’t know that in an emergency I could save their little chauvinistic lives.” The expectation, however, from the company’s perspective is that workers should just turn the other cheek. That same flight attendant continues:
I had a woman throw hot coffee at me, and do you think the company would back me up? Would they write a letter? Bring a suit? Ha! Any chance of negative publicity and they say, No. They say don’t get angry at that; it’s a tough job, and part of the job is to take this abuse in stride.
While flight attendants are prominent in The Managed Heart, Hochschild also sees this same dynamic play out in other workplaces. Sales workers, clerical workers, professional and technical workers, healthcare workers, any position that involves providing a service can also include having to perform emotional labor. This includes academic professionals in the public university.
Emotional labor is often invisible work – work that is not even in our job description. And while anyone regardless of gender can be expected to perform emotional labor, it often is considered “part of the job” in industries dominated by women. If left unaddressed, the expectations to perform emotional labor can have a detrimental effect on your career.
Have you ever met someone who might have been passed on for a salary raise because they were moody or not enthusiastic about their job? On the other hand, have you ever heard “having a good attitude” being used to justify why someone is a good candidate for a promotion? While it may not be the main factor, it is commonly accepted that your office demeanor can affect how administration favors or disfavors you.
The sexism that can be reinforced through this dynamic can be hard to contend with in a workplace without clear policies. Luckily, this is why you have a union. Through a union members can collectively bargain for articles and provisions in a contract that protect the rights of all workers, and limits how informal expectations can be used to discriminate amongst employees.
As a member of Academic Professionals of California, your contract has several articles that help you deal with informal expectations of emotional labor in the workplace. Let’s say that your work involves dealing with the public, and you became visibly angry with an irate student in your office.
Without a contract your supervisor may reprimand you for not behaving appropriately and attempt to write you up. Article 5 of your contract allows you to request for reconsideration of disciplinary action and affords you an hour of release time to prepare a case as to why you should not receive disciplinary action. Your supervisor must respond to this request within 21 days of receiving it, otherwise the reconsideration can be escalated up to the CSU President. If management fails to respond in a timely fashion a grievance can be filed, per the procedure outlined in Article 10.
Another right you have as an APC member is outlined in Article 11 – your right to accessing your personnel file. If you suspect that your manager or an administrator might have added something to your personnel file that is hurting your chances at a raise or promotion, you have a contractual right to request a copy of your personnel file from Human Resources (HR) to review. Additionally, you can include written rebuttals to any content in the personnel file.
Lastly, if you find anything that is not accurate, relevant, or complete, you can request in writing a correction of the record. The President, which usually means a representative at Human Resources, must respond to your request within 21 days, and if they deny your request a written explanation must be provided. While personnel files can often be hidden from employees and can include only the perspective of the manager, these rights allow you to ensure your side of the story is just as visible.
These rights are valuable tools in your ability to ensure management cannot secretly punish you for not performing work that is not detailed in your job. But like any rights, they are only as strong as the will to enforce them. If you and your coworkers feel like you might be discriminated against for not performing enough emotional labor, request together to see your personnel files and compare notes. That collective action alone will let HR and management know you are paying attention and will hold them accountable for any underhanded actions.
The most important thing is to talk together, as a union, and share your stories. Your experiences are important. The more we share with each other, the less our bosses can slip past us. The more common ground we find among ourselves, the more solidarity we build.
Ask your Coworkers…
- How do you think your supervisor would describe your demeanor at work? Do you think their opinion should influence your CSU career?
- Have you ever felt like you had to manage your emotions at work, even though that is not explicitly part of your job?
- Have you ever felt the need to act differently than how you currently felt to appease your supervisor or upper administration?
APC Campus Stewards are available to help you understand your rights and how to navigate workplace issues that violate the Contract.
 From the chapter “Feeling as Clue” A.R. Hochschild, 1979, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, p. 28-29.
Max Belasco is an IT worker at UCLA and member of the University Professional Technical Employees, a local of Communication Workers of America (UPTE-CWA 9119). At his job he provides technology support for students, faculty and staff, with a focus on supporting classroom technology and instructional design. A graduate of UCLA and a fourth-generation Bruin, Max is committed to the mission of public universities and higher education, and believes unions play a critical role in fulfilling that mission.
When he is not providing tech support or serving as a unit representative in his union, Max can be found writing for his labor publication Strikewave, which covers workplace organizing across the United States and abroad. He is excited to be also writing for Academic Professionals of California and helping union family in the CSU System!