Keeping It Real: The Effects and Costs of Authentic Service

Topic(s): Health & Safety, professional identity
Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: Moments of Truth: Examining Transient Authenticity and Identity in Service Encounters
Authors: Yagil, D. and Medler-Liraz, H.
Reviewed by: Neil Morelli

In today’s economy, U.S. workers are less likely to be making something and more likely to be providing some of kind service to customers or clients. A concept that is gaining attention for many studying or working in the service industry is the idea of emotional labor, or the demand placed on service workers to mask self-expression by following company scripts and procedures when interacting with customers. Of course, we must all exhibit some self-control in our jobs, but not being able to express one’s true self, or being “inauthentic”, as is the case with many service jobs, can have meaningful well-being consequences for individuals.

To better understand how workers manage and cope with emotional labor through authentic behavior, and to discover the possible costs of authentic service, Yagil and Medler-Liraz examined if there are certain situations where employees are more likely to be authentic in their interactions with customers. The authors coded interview responses from 44 employees in 27 service organizations that covered financial, telecommunications, hospitality/restaurant, and sales roles. The interviewers asked participants to recall examples when they provided service using behaviors that were completely “genuine.” Responses concerning the details and contexts of these examples were coded across interviewees into similarity categories; these categories were then grouped into themes, which were then sorted into five overall dimensions which classified situations that led to authentic and inauthentic behavior, as well as the costs of these behaviors.

To summarize these dimensions, service workers were more likely to be authentic if they identified with the customer and/or with the task at hand, generally because they found common ground and/or the nature of the task aligned with the worker’s idea of what it means to be authentic. For example, wanting to provide sincere service because you can relate to the customer or because the service accomplishes what you want to happen (for example, helping someone in need). Situations that involved the least authentic behavior were those where the worker had low autonomy; in other words, their behavior was decided because “I had to.” Overall, authenticity was commonly expressed through honesty, personal endeavor, and interpersonal closeness with the customer.

While it is important to take note of the situational context that leads to authentic or inauthentic behavior, the authors also noted the costs of authentic behavior. These included losing control of the interaction with the customer, acting disloyally towards the organization, or experiencing social rejection from a customer. So, should organizations encourage their service workers to act authentically? Examples of authentic behaviors often show increased service quality and customer satisfaction, along with increased worker satisfaction and well-being. However, the authors caution that “prescribing” authentic behavior may defeat the purpose; instead they recommend that “bounded authenticity” be implemented. In other words, universal rules that are must-haves for organizations should be standardized and enforced, without creating broad-brush formulas for employee interactions with customers.