How Much “Emotional Labor” Does Your Job Require?

I’ve heard that women are asked to smile more than men, and to calibrate their emotions more often than men because the corporate environment—and the world in general—is less forgiving of women’s emotions than men’s.

The requirement of calibrating emotions to keep others comfortable sometimes is referred to as “emotional labor,” writes Gwen Moran in Fast Company: “Emotional labor in its original context meant ‘surface acting,’ or managing emotions to make people around you comfortable. So that may mean putting on a smile in a service job, no matter how you’re feeling. It may mean watching tone in communication, or acting in ways that reinforce prescribed norms.” As a consequence, women often take on “daily culture-building and housekeeping tasks.”

My late mother, who was a vice president of a health system in Connecticut until 2002, told me there was an assumption that she would be the one to take minutes in executive meetings, rather than one of the male executives. For the sake of confidentiality, no executive assistants were invited to the meetings, so it fell to one of the executives to take minutes, and the idea that one of the men would pony up and take notes was unthinkable. If it wasn’t my mother, then it likely would have been one of the other female vice presidents.

I still smile at how my former boss/current editor has me “initiate” conference calls like an executive assistant, and likes to have me read material I post to a planning Web page out loud like a game show hostess reading off a board of numbers or letters on a stage. Or like a magician’s assistant.

Does any of this sound familiar to the women reading this (or the more perceptive/sensitive men)? The question is: When you nurture future executives, do you consciously think about, and address, the issue of emotional labor? And if you do want to address it, how do you do it?

One idea is to consider all of the tasks a work group requires, including the small tasks no one might think of, such as initiating conference calls, ordering lunch, taking minutes at meetings, or giving new employees tours of the office, and then emphasizing that these should be shared tasks, or tasks everyone in the work group has an equal chance of doing. For tasks no one wants to do, like taking notes in a meeting, employees simply could take turns.

The more difficult part of emotional labor is the calibration of emotions. You want to make sure in performance reviews, and in daily feedback, that women employees are held to the same standard as men in how they express and handle themselves. A common observation during the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearings was that a woman who was alternately angry and tearful would be called hysterical and unhinged. Another observation I came across was that Blasey Ford, consciously, or not, seemed to carefully calibrate herself to be judged acceptable—serious, but not too serious, friendly, but not too friendly. Could this same difference in expectations for men and women in the way they express themselves be happening at some, if not most, companies?

Human Resources and Learning professionals, many of whom have backgrounds in psychology, could help by looking for patterns in performance reviews. How does a manager with both male and female employees describe and critique each? Are there patterns in which women employees are critiqued more for demeanor or “attitude” than men are? Are there other red flags that might indicate women employees are being held to a different, much more nitpicky standard of emotional calibration—emotional labor—than men?

Keeping everyone happy, or “keeping the peace,” as my mother referred to it, shouldn’t be the purview of any one employee or group of employees. Similarly, one employee or group shouldn’t be more responsible than any other employee or group for making sure no one is offended. At least some of the time, “the offense” might be due more to whom it came from than what was said or done.

How does your company screen for subtle signs that male and female employees are being held to the same standards, not just in work but in how they express themselves and how they are received?

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