A nurse can care for five patients and feel exhausted or care for 10 patients and feel invigorated. It's all about handling the emotion that goes with what can sometimes be a thankless job. The same can be said about working in the hospitality industry, particularly restaurants. Front-of-house employees frequently encounter demanding and difficult customers, with little recourse other than to smile and be polite.
Research from Washington State University's Carson College of Business examines how this type of emotional work or labor can be a double-edged sword for restaurant managers. While it can bring company success, it can also have a negative effect on the wellbeing of employees and lead to job burnout. While job burnout may seem inevitable because of emotional labor, the research identified a variety of steps management can take to help reduce burnout and subsequent job turnover among employees. In general, these steps can be broken into either education and training or recruiting and hiring.
Education and training
Often education and training programs focus on the hard skills (processing orders, seating guests, etc.) and house rules (how tables are divided, where the glasses are stored, etc.). But Washington State's research found that job burnout can be avoided by training and encouraging employees to use a soft skill known as "deep acting." Put simply, this means making a conscious effort to feel and display genuine emotions by putting themselves in a customer's shoes. Deep acting benefits the employee, the restaurant and the guest. For example, when a restaurant guest is angry, and the server or host expresses a sincere apology, the guest is more likely to be satisfied, which in turn may decrease stress.
One simple way to encourage deep acting is to implement positive display rules (such as asking employees to show friendly emotions like smiling, giving compliments and making small talk). Display rules are the social norm of any group and can have a powerful impact on restaurant staff. A negative display rule asks employees to never show "negative" emotions such as anger or sadness. Negative display rules often make people cynical and can lead to surface acting, displaying false or unauthentic emotions, while using positive display rules can encourage employees to use deep acting.
Another key finding from the research involves employee empowerment. Training employees and empowering them to make quick decisions to resolve customer problems are positively correlated with deep acting. Employees empowered with more autonomy are less likely to experience job stress and more likely to treat customers more personally and feel proud of their job.
Recruiting and hiring
While education and training are critical to giving employees the skills they need to handle emotional labor, certain factors depend on an individual's disposition. Recruiting and hiring practices can help identify people who are better suited to restaurant and hospitality jobs.
Restaurant human resource managers or hiring managers should consider recruiting extroverted people because these types of applicants are more likely to increase guests' perceptions of service quality and customer satisfaction through deep acting. People with this personality trait also tend to experience less burnout in the service industry. Another trait to look for is agreeableness, as these individuals are likely to exert more effort, strive to maintain a positive relationship and genuinely care about others' wellbeing.
Hiring managers should also strive to provide a realistic job preview to help encourage the right people to apply. This includes offering realistic information on the expected role and explicitly stating what type of personality traits will be most successful at the restaurant. This information can help potential employees seeking a position in the food industry make an informed career decision.
When employees feel invigorated even after a long day of work, we see it as success against what appears to be the ever-looming threat of job burnout and turnover. For restaurants to be truly successful, providing training to use deep acting, allowing autonomy to respond to customer problems quickly and hiring people with the right personality traits must be continual. These practices can help employees provide top-quality service to customers and avoid cynicism and eventual job burnout.
Jenny Kim is a professor at the School of Hospitality Business Management at the Washington State University Carson College of Business.