The status of race in public sector work: Implications for emotion management and job satisfaction
What social scientists refer to as “emotion management” is the process of controlling an internally felt emotion in order to appear appropriate to others in a given situation. Most people engage in emotion management in everyday social interactions. For example, we might smile to be polite, even if we do not feel happy. As you might imagine, emotion management can be particularly important in the workplace.
In addition to expecting employees to be polite, many organizations require certain emotional displays from workers. Studies of emotion management in the workplace have shown that constant efforts to display certain emotions, especially masking negative emotions to appear happy, can have negative consequences for workers including emotional exhaustion, psychological distress, and lowered job satisfaction. This type of emotion management is more common lower-paying frontline service jobs than in the professional services.
In addition, negative emotion tends to flow down a status hierarchy such that those in lower status positions, by job or social category, tend to be the recipients of others’ negative emotional expressions while they are expected to express positive emotions and display deference up the hierarchy. Therefore, individuals in social minority statuses, such as women and racial or ethnic minorities, may exert even greater efforts to maintain what is perceived to be an emotionally appropriate appearance than those in more advantaged social categories. Studies of racial and ethnic minority workers show that they often work to overly emphasize a professional demeanor in response to prejudices of coworkers and customers or to counter racial stereotypes.
If certain groups of workers engage in greater efforts to manage their emotions at work, those groups of workers may be at greater risk of experiencing lowered psychological well-being and reduced job satisfaction related to masking their feelings. In our research, we were interested in how the emotional experiences of African American workers in particular compared to those of white workers and whether extensive emotion management was related job satisfaction.
In general, African Americans tend to report lower levels of job satisfaction than whites in similar jobs. We expected that greater emotion management efforts of African Americans may help to explain why they gain less satisfaction from their jobs. We tested this hypothesis using data that collected through a mail survey of 1,550 public sector workers. Characterized by formalized hiring and promotion procedures, work in the public sector should be a context in which many forms of racial inequality would be minimized.
Our analyses revealed that, holding education level, age, and other demographic characteristics constant, African Americans tended to be overrepresented in less desirable jobs. Compared to white workers, African Americans had less autonomy in their work, performed more routine jobs, and held lower status positions within the workplace. These job characteristics were associated with lower levels of job satisfaction, and contributed to African Americans being less satisfied with their jobs overall compared to their white colleagues.
However, lower job quality did not explain all of the racial gap in job satisfaction. The remaining difference in job satisfaction between white and African American workers was due to the greater emotion management efforts of African Americans. That is, African Americans exerted more emotion management effort than their white counterparts, and those efforts, combined with lower levels of job autonomy and more routine work tasks, explained why they are less satisfied with their jobs.
These findings suggest that in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of racial inequality in the workplace, it is necessary to examine the emotional aspects of working. Most sociological examinations of workplace inequality look at job characteristics and overt discriminatory practices. But, our findings illustrate the racial inequality that is found in the everyday emotional experiences of working.
Both public and private employers may want to ensure worker well-being initiatives recognize and make efforts to alleviate the emotional toll of working. For example, supportive relationships with coworkers can contribute to positive emotional experiences, and feelings of self-efficacy regarding one’s own emotion management efforts have been shown to mitigate the negative impacts of extensive emotion management, resulting in more job satisfaction and better overall well-being.