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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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1.5 Emotional and aesthetic labour

Employee engagement requires employees to show engagement through extra effort, via the following dimensions:

  • Emotional engagement – being highly involved emotionally with the work
  • Cognitive engagement – concentrating hard on the work
  • Physical engagement – being willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for the employer.

Hence employees are not just required to feel engaged, they are also expected to show they feel engaged. Engagement thus implies the use of ‘emotional labour’.

Emotional labour ‘involves the production of certain feelings in the worker, the production of feelings in others, and the effort, planning, and control required to express an organisation’s desired emotions’ (Eschenfelder, 2012, p. 175). Essentially this highlights that in many work contexts it is not sufficient for an employee to perform a particular task; rather the task must be performed in a certain way. In particular it is the visible emotional performance that is significant in generating organisational benefit; that is to say that profit comes from service with a smile. Although this is about appropriate and required emotional displays rather than simply smiling, consider for example the appropriate gravitas and solemnity required by funeral directors to perform their role effectively (Rafaeli and Sutton, 1987).

Figure 2 An air steward or stewardess needs to provide service with a smile.
Figure 3 An undertaker however should be much more reserved.

Moreover, it is not simply this outward display of emotion that matters but also the required ‘internal emotional labour’. This ‘labouring’ describes how we cope and attempt to make sense of conflict between how we actually feel and the emotional displays we believe are required (Gabriel, 2008). While originally thought of as a key issue in face-to-face service contexts, this has since been shown to have a significant impact on employee well-being across a diverse range of contexts including call centres (Korczynski, 2003), within the voluntary sector (Eschenfelder, 2012) and also in the work of HRM professionals (O’Brien and Linehan, 2014).

O’Brien and Linehan (2014) suggest that emotional labour is embedded within the work of HRM practitioners as they must both emotionally manage others and themselves, particularly in difficult and challenging contexts such as those explored in this course. O’Brien and Linehan (2014) found that emotional labour in HRM work was related to four roles that HRM practitioners needed to play: cheerleader, champion, honest broker and rule enforcer, together with being professional (see Table 2).

Table 2: HRM roles and associated display expectations
RoleExpectationDisplay requirement
Being professional

Maintains professional detachment

Displays a ‘can-do’ image

‘Face of the company’

Suppress overly positive and negative emotion

Display measured control

Express positive emotion about self, work, and the organisation

Suppress anxiety and negativity

Rule enforcer

Communicates, enforces, and models behavioural standards

‘Guardian of the rules’

Express social control emotions (e.g. disapproval, reprimand)
Honest broker

Upholds moral/ethical climate

Promotes fairness

‘Conscience of the business’

Display calm demeanour, impartiality, and objectivity

Provides support to employees and managers

Friendly and approachable

‘Listening ear’

Express empathy, interest, compassion

Responsible for emotional climate

Engenders enthusiasm for work

Manages own and others’ emotions

‘Happy smiley people’

Displays positivity, enthusiasm, job satisfaction, and pride in the company
(O’Brien and Linehan, 2014, p. 1268)

This research found that ‘HRM professionals must enact an array of emotional fronts and abide by the emotional display rules of their job. At times, these rules are contradictory, and participants spoke of the challenge of managing conflicting emotion display requirements while trying to maintain an image of credibility and competence for different organisational audiences’ (O’Brien and Linehan, 2014, p. 1277). Performances of trust, integrity and fairness are highlighted as particularly demanding in certain employment relations processes (e.g. disciplinary proceedings) that HRM practitioners must deliver.

While in the case of the HRM practitioners studied above, there was seen to be a professional emphasis on certain displays, elsewhere organisations actively promote and encourage aspects of emotional labour, often incorporating this into expectations of employee engagement – see the case study in Box 1.

Box 1: Avatar Ireland case study

Cushen (2009) reviewed an organisation (given the pseudonym ‘Avatar Ireland’) in which a programme she calls ‘Brand Essence’ started as a marketing initiative, but developed into a description of employee behaviours and performance ‘in order to deliver that “wow” customer experience’ (p. 105).

Cushen goes on to explain: ‘Employees completed Brand Essence workshops and were provided with reading materials and DVDs outlining how to behave and communicate in a way that was consistent with Brand Essence. Considerable emphasis was placed on “living the essence” and specific tips were provided relating to writing, talking and managing one’s body language. There was no subtlety regarding the need to self-regulate in order to behave and communicate in a manner that was termed “on brand”’ (p. 105).

However one of Cushen’s interviewees used the geological analogy of ‘permafrost’ to describe how the programme affected only the surface layer of the organisation and of employee behaviour. She explains how employees ‘were critical of such blatant normative control practices and irritated by the idea that the purveyors of Brand Essence believed they would be galvanised by it’ (p. 110).

She goes on to describe the programme as an attempt ‘to seduce employees into delivering extra functional, discretionary effort without offering anything in return’ (p. 110).

This study highlights the risk of programmes which attempt to engender employee engagement and manage emotional labour. We will further explore these challenges later in this course, particularly when considering resistance to change.

The principles of emotional labour have been developed as researchers suggest other forms of labouring, including aesthetic labour. This is seen as particularly pertinent as the image of employees has become a part of the organisational branding. It is suggested that workers who were ‘perceived to be “good looking” or simply having the “right look”’ (Warhurst and Nickson, 2009, p. 386) are commodified or ‘sold’ as embodying the desired organisational image. Organisations pursuing aesthetic labour have, however, also found themselves subject to public critique, for example journalists and campaigners have raised the issue of whether the recruitment preferences for sales staff who look a particular way by the popular US clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch might be perceived as discrimination (Greenhouse, 2003; McBride, 2005; Williams and Connell, 2010). Explore these ideas further in Activity 2.

Activity 2

Timing: About 60

Abercrombie & Fitch, a well-known US clothing chain, now call their shop floor workers ‘brand representatives’ and previously called them ‘models’, rather than sales assistants.


Much of the press coverage of Abercrombie & Fitch’s policy regarding model recruitment has been negative, and finally it appears as though this has started to dent the brand’s overall image and popularity in the youth clothing sector. Recent changes have seen a shift in both the marketing and positioning of store roles.

Nevertheless, the recruitment pages of the website replicate the same strong marketing aesthetic of the brand. Image, in terms of association with the brand and poise, feature in front of house role descriptions but are less present in back-room roles. The job requirements ‘diversity awareness’, which elsewhere on the website is defined as: ‘about who you are as an individual – what’s seen and unseen. It also includes the rich differences between individuals such as race, gender, family, sexual orientation, work experience, physical ability, and religion.’

However it appears that while this suggests a commitment to recruiting people from diverse backgrounds and different cultures, it does not rule out applying a judgement to ensure that they are all beautiful!

If you explored the ‘work schedule’ tab of the store opportunities you will see that the contract terms do not seem particularly attractive and might be labelled by some as ‘zero-hours’ contracts.

Having considered these issues of emotional and aesthetic labour it is not too much of a leap to suggest that employee engagement is somewhat more complex than it might first appear. The oft-promoted mutual benefit for employees and organisations might be rather more problematic than is claimed by movements such as ‘Engage for Success’ within the UK.