Service with a smile: Easier said than done!

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Scientific interpretation

Most people have contacted an organization in a moment of frustration at one time or another. A customer service agent’s day mainly involves managing clients’ negative emotions, but always with a smile. A smile, even though it can be authentic, can also be a mask, especially in a context where an employee’s work requires it. This mask can become exhausting. This phenomenon is not new in the research: it is known as emotional labour.

Picard and colleagues (2018) studied this topic, examining how emotional labour is associated with the emotional exhaustion and service performance of call-centre employees.


Michel COSSETTE, professor, Department of Human Resource Management, HEC Montréal


Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

MARIE-ÉLISE LABRECQUE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke


This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.


Emotional labour

This is work in which emotions must be expressed based on social expectations. This is the case for work that involves customer service, in which an employee must show emotions expected by the organization to respond to clients.

Emotional labour can be expressed in three ways:

  1. By deep acting, that is, the management or adjustment of one’s inner emotional state to show the emotions expected by the organization. The impact of a client’s unpleasant words can be reduced by diverting one’s attention away from anger and by emphasizing concrete aspects of the client’s problem.
  2. By surface acting, which involves hiding an emotion or pretending to feel an emotion to satisfy the organization’s requirements. It can mean smiling without necessarily feeling joy, or hiding irritation in front of an unhappy client.
  3. By the natural expression of emotions, which is naturally expressing feelings that are experienced. However, as the organization’s requirements do not allow employees to express negative emotions towards clients, it mainly involves the expression of positive emotions.

The forms of emotional labour vary according to the degree of authenticity that employees experience. Authenticity is the sense of choice and self-expression that can protect against emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion

It is expressed through a lack of energy and great emotional fatigue. In other words, emotional exhaustion is the feeling of being drained of energy. A person who is emotionally exhausted therefore has difficulty getting up to go to work, has no energy at the end of the day and feels depleted.

Service performance

This is a matter of adopting positive emotions and helpful behaviours towards clients, with an attitude that is warm, friendly and authentic. In other words, it comes back to serving the client with a smile, so that clients see that the smile is authentic and truly felt.

Complete reference

Picard, K., Cossette, M., & Morin, D. (2018). Servir les clients avec le sourire: Source d’épuisement ou de performance chez les salariés de centres d’appels? Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, 35(2), o1-016.


Country: Québec, Canada

Recruitment of participants: Participants were from a call centre in the insurance sector.

Number of participants: 215

Method used: Personal questionnaires administered onsite by researchers.

Number of women: 58.1%

Average age: 30.27 years

Average seniority: 1.25 years


The study’s results show that the different forms of emotional labour affect emotional exhaustion and service performance.

  • People who naturally express their positive emotions at work are the least likely to experience emotional exhaustion and show a better service performance.
  • Because surface acting is the form that requires a person to expend more effort to hide it, by suppressing an emotion, it is the most likely to cause emotional exhaustion. Still, it seems that it does not have a significant effect on service performance. This suggests that this type of acting has negative effects on employees’ mental health, but not on their performance.
  • Deep acting is also a source of emotional exhaustion, but only when a person shows a natural tendency to experience few negative emotions. This is because unlike a person who has a tendency to experience negative emotions, they are less used to hiding or adjusting their emotions, which requires more energy when the situation calls for deep acting.


It therefore seems that the natural expression of emotions is the most authentic form of emotional labour and therefore the most beneficial, given its role as a protective factor against emotional exhaustion and its positive effects on service performance.


Service with a smile is easier said than done, but there are ways to help employees do this. Here are some of them.

Actions employers can take


Hire people who have the ability to express positive emotions naturally

  • Ask behavioural questions to check how the employee regulates their emotions.
  • For example: “Describe a situation where you had to respond to an angry client while keeping calm. How did you deal with the situation? What were the results?”

Train and increase awareness among employees for strategies for emotional regulation

  • Emotions come from a person’s interpretation of signals from the situation or from themselves. Employees must understand what clients are experiencing and try to put themselves in their place. If they can explain what clients are going through, they will understand the roots of their emotions and will be less likely to attribute them to themselves.

Offer feedback and coaching on natural expression of emotions

  • It is necessary to help employees to better interpret signals to defuse their own negative emotions. Telling employees “Don’t take it personally” is a common response, but does not help them. You need to help them to identify what clients are going through and understand why.


It is also important to know that according to other research, surface acting is not harmful in itself; it is using only this strategy that can be detrimental to employees’ well-being. That is why it is beneficial to use, in a flexible way, the natural expression of positive emotions, deep acting and surface acting.[1]

In other words, the idea is not to eliminate surface acting, but rather to encourage the use of strategies for natural expression of emotions as well as other types of regulation to find a healthy balance in employees’ relationship with clients!


Cossette, M., Fouquet, E., Labrecque, M.-É. (2019). Service with a smile: Easier said than done!. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at


Picard, K., Cossette, M., & Morin, D. (2018). Servir les clients avec le sourire: Source d’épuisement ou de performance chez les salariés de centres d’appels? Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, 35(2), o1-016.


[1] 1. Cossette, M., & Hess, U. (2015). Service with Style and Smile. How and Why Employees are Performing Emotional Labour. European Review of Applied Psychology, 65(2), 71–82.

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton