When a forced smile is bad for the bottom line

Constantly putting on a happy face is likely to lead to burnout, absenteeism and staff turnover

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2016, 11:02am

How often are workers told to smile at customers? It’s as common in Hong Kong as it is in Sydney – or anywhere else in the world.

With the aim of keeping customers satisfied, employers commonly demand frontline staff fake happy emotions.

Managers are looking at the bottom line. In a service context, they want to deliver cheerful, friendly service to customers. When they are offering the same as their competitors, they think that doing it with the extra smile will provide a competitive advantage.

Organisations feel it’s in their best interests to have what are called “display rules” so there’s some consistency in how employees behave.

However, our latest research at UNSW Australia suggests constantly putting on a happy face is likely to cause burnout, representing a high cost for everyone involved, not least in terms of absenteeism and staff turnover.

One way to manage the stress levels of those dealing with grouchy customers is to allow the service staff to ‘let off steam’ behind the scenes at work

Where burnout commonly occurs is in jobs where employees are not necessarily working for the money or the fame – such as nursing or teaching – but because they have a genuine desire to help customers, students or patients. They want to do a good job, and what can become frustrating for them is having to deal with an organisational environment where they may not be able to deliver the type of service that they want to deliver or, in some instances, where there is a lot of incivility and abuse or aggression from patients or customers.

There’s a natural process called emotion regulation which we use in all instances of life, not just in the work environment. When we deal with our partners and strangers in public, we don’t always express the emotions that we feel because it’s not socially acceptable or we don’t want to reveal them. But having to do that intensively in a job, day after day, can be stressful.

While researching this effect, we found that one way to manage the stress levels of those dealing with grouchy customers is to allow the service staff to “let off steam” behind the scenes at work or take short breaks in order to recover. In one company we looked at, they had a small windowless room with a punch bag. If staff had a bad experience with a customer, they were allowed a few minutes to take a break in that room and take it out on the punch bag.

This is, in itself, not such a silly idea. We looked at what happens when there’s a climate that allows people to vent and complain about an interaction they just had or when they need to be on guard because their employer says it’s not acceptable to do that. We found that if there is such a climate, where people allow each other to effectively go back stage, then that can have a good impact on reducing the negative impact of employee burnout and stress levels.

However, a separate part of our research found that in any event, all that positive patter may be wasted on customers or patients who value displays of emotional authenticity over phoney friendliness in service staff.

We’ve found that customers can regularly see through a smile that is not sincere. We set up a simulated video rental store and used actors who were trained to react identically, except for the amount or quality of their smiles. Some of them faked smiles, whereas others were sincere. Results showed that the amount of smiling had little effect on customers, contrary to the popular mantra of “service with a smile”; rather, customers reacted positively to employees whom they perceived to be genuine.

What’s much more important in driving the customer outcomes that managers seek, is if the customers feel people are genuinely interested and trying to help them, that is, they are genuinely friendly and they are not just putting on a fake smile to meet a manager’s expectations.

However, a much smarter solution may be recruiting emotionally intelligent staff who can defuse situations of customers starting to get hot under the collar before they even arise.

A simple ability to look the other person in the eyes or, when dealing on the phone in a call centre environment, to detect when the customer is getting slightly irritated or in the early stages of getting annoyed or abusive, can help prevent it from escalating. There are lots of people who are not particularly good at that. They don’t pick up early warning signs all that easily, and there are some tests out there to determine this as a predictor of their job performance and their sustainability in the job in terms of turnover rates.

When recruiting front line staff and working out who to employ, managers should perhaps look at the ability to read other people’s emotions.

Managers need to understand that burnout can have a huge financial impact on the bottom line of the organisation, so it should be minimised as much as possible. It’s great if that can happen in the recruiting stage by identifying criteria that may be predictors of burnout. However, for employees already in the organisation, trying to create an environment where they understand the emotional demands of their jobs, and consequently are better able to cope with them, will positively affect the bottom line. It will mean employees are able to stay in their jobs, be more engaged and be more productive. On the customer side – particularly when authentic emotions impact customer loyalty and satisfaction – it’s also very beneficial for the bottom line. So finding the right balance is critical for managers.

Forcing your employees to smile at work increases burnout. It also often does little for the customer, who can usually see through fake friendliness. Managers would be much better to recruit either genuine individuals, or if they can’t do that, to train their employees to be more effective in regulating their emotions.

Professor Markus Groth is an expert in emotions at work at the UNSW Business School in Sydney, Australia