“Service With A Smile” Requirement And Reliance On Tips Puts Workers At Risk Of Sexual Harassment

By Emily Reynolds

“Service with a smile” — having a friendly, cheerful demeanor when working with customers in retail or hospitality — has long been identified as having a negative impact on worker wellbeing. One 2019 study, for example, found that “faking it” was of significant detriment to service workers, whilst the term “emotional labour” was first used by sociologists to describe jobs which require workers to display positive emotions.

And when this requirement to provide service with a smile is combined with a reliance on tips for income, there can be horrible consequences, a new study suggests. A team led by the University of Notre Dame’s Timothy G. Kundro finds that the combination of financial dependence and deference to customers that tipping and emotional labour involves can lead to customers feeling like they have more power and ultimately sexually harassing workers.

For the first study, the team recruited 92 employees working at least 35 hours per week and receiving regular tips from customers. First, participants indicated how financially dependent they were on customer tips by reporting what percentage of their total income came from them, and also answered questions about how much they had to appear friendly, sensitive, and composed.

The psychological power of customers versus workers was also measured, with participants indicating whether they felt customers had more power than them and whether or not they had to behave in a way that pleased those they were serving. Finally, they rated how many times they had been sexually harassed by customers over the last six months.

Workers who were both highly dependent on customer tips for income and who indicated that they were required to behave in a pleasing way reported that customers had high levels of power over them — more than workers who weren’t dependent on tips or who didn’t have to provide “service with a smile”. And in turn, this group also reported a higher incidence of sexual harassment at work. This suggests that the combination of both relying on tips and service with a smile can be the catalyst for customers sexually harassing workers.          

 A second study looked at the behaviour of customers. Participants, 171 men attracted to women, were asked to imagine they were a customer arriving at a local restaurant: all saw an image of a waitress who was to serve them, displaying either a pleasant, submissive facial expression or a non-deferent one, before reading a transcript of an exchange and finally an image of their receipt.

In the high financial dependence condition, the final receipt included a line for a tip, with a reminder that tips are appreciated; the receipt in the low financial dependence condition stated that employees were paid a fair wage and tips were not necessary. Participants then indicated how much power they believed they had in the situation.

Finally, participants stated how attractive they found the waitress and how likely they would be to ask her for a drink, ask her for her phone number, or touch her in a “joking” manner. They also indicated how much they agreed with statements related to power including “If I asked for her phone number she’d probably give it to me” and “If I asked her for a date, she’d probably say yes”.

Again, participants’ sense of power and intentions to sexually harass the waitress depended on a combination of how financially dependent she was on tips and her displays of emotional labour. Specifically, when they had seen pictures of a submissive, smiling woman and been encouraged to tip, they felt they had more power over her. This in turn led to a higher likelihood that participants would attempt to show inappropriate sexual behaviour towards the waitress.

Thus, across both studies, the team found that two crucial elements of service work — emotional labour and financial dependence through receiving tips — were closely linked to the likelihood of customers sexually harassing them. This can put serving staff in a double bind: not engaging in emotional labour and reducing likelihood of receiving tips then increases financial dependence on customers, thus putting them more at risk. Psychological interventions may not be the answer here. Rather, practical solutions could help: reducing the need for emotional labour in employees, for one, or ensuring that all workers are paid a decent living wage and are less reliant on tips.

– A perfect storm: Customer sexual harassment as a joint function of financial dependence and emotional labor.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest