Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 160, Issue 1, pp 17–34 | Cite as

An Ethical Analysis of Emotional Labor

  • Bruce Barry
  • Mara Olekalns
  • Laura ReesEmail author
Original Paper


Our understanding of emotional labor, while conceptually and empirically substantial, is normatively impoverished: very little has been said or written expressly about its ethical dimensions or ramifications. Emotional labor refers to efforts undertaken by employees to make their private feelings and/or public emotion displays consistent with job and organizational requirements. We formally define emotional labor, briefly summarize research in organizational behavior and social psychology on the causes and consequences of emotional labor, and present a normative analysis of its moral limits focused on conditional rights and duties of employers and employees. Our focus is on three points of conflict involving rights and duties as they apply to the performance of emotional labor: when employees’ and organizations’ rights conflict, when employees’ rights conflict with their duties, and when organizations’ rights conflict with their duties. We discuss implications for future inquiry as well as managerial practice.


Authenticity Autonomy Deception Deontology Duties Emotional labor Emotion management Rights 



The authors contributed equally and are listed in alphabetical order. We thank the editor and anonymous reviewers for insightful comments that catalyzed significant improvements in the article. This research was partially funded through a Melbourne Business School Distinguished Visiting Scholar grant and ARC Discovery Grant DP140100630. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2015 Academy of Management Meeting, Vancouver.

Author Contributions

All the authors are contributed equally to this work.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Owen Graduate School of ManagementVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA
  2. 2.Melbourne Business SchoolMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Bloch School of ManagementUniversity of Missouri - Kansas CityKansas CityUSA

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