Sarah J. Tracy

Sarah J. Tracy

Sarah J. Tracy, Ph.D., is an organizational communication scholar who received her Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in Communication from the University of Colorado-Boulder. During her time at the university, she held three academic positions within the Department of Communication: Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and Graduate Part-time Instructor. After earning the title of “Doctor”, she continued on to various positions within Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, where she has been Associate Professor of organizational communication since 2006 (Tracy, n.d.).



Dr. Tracy has received much recognition and several awards for her excellence in teaching. As documented in her Curriculum Vitae, Tracy (n.d.) noted her praise, including Teaching Excellence Awards at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and “Exemplary” ratings in internal Hugh Downs School faculty annual reviews. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, she taught courses such as Introduction to Organizational Communication and Communication Theory, as well as a seminar in Communication, Emotional Control & Burnout in Organizations. At Arizona State University, she has taught several courses, including Theory and Research in Organizational Communication, Advanced Qualitative Methods in Communication, Navigating Work/Life through Communication, and Emotions in Organizations: Communication, construction & control of work feeling. Student evaluations of her courses at ASU from 2000 to 2010 have supported her recognition for excellence in teaching, as they have proven her to possess an overall excellent teaching ability with rigorous course material (p. 16-21).


Dr. Tracy’s communication scholarship examines emotion and identity within organizations, with a focus on workplace bullying, emotion labor, burnout, and work-life wellness. Through the use of qualitative research, such as participant observation, in-depth interviewing, focus groups, and discourse analysis, her ethnographic studies investigate targets of workplace bullying, male executives, correctional officers, 911 emergency call-takers, public relations professionals, and cruise ship activity coordinators. Tracy designs and conducts her research in an attempt to provide new information and knowledge that can potentially improve organizational environments and the everyday lives of men and women.

In addition to her Associate Professor role at ASU, Tracy also serves as the Director of The Project for Wellness and Work-Life (PWWL), which is a strategic initiative of The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at ASU. In “Project for Wellness and Work-Life (PWWL)” (2010), PWWL is described as an association of scholars who research “the intersections of private, domestic life spheres and the public, commodified world of work” (para. 1). In other words, the scholars conduct research on organizational topics related to work-life well-being in order to advance theoretical knowledge in the field, and promote both organizational and societal transformation. The association hosts events in ASU classes and for other groups on the ASU campus, such as lectures and presentations from guest speakers who are either scholars or professionals within organizations. Additionally, PWWL has several published works, including white papers and media stories.


Dr. Tracy has published a multitude of scholarly works, including books, book chapters, conference papers, and journal articles. She is co-author of Leading organizations through transition: Communication and cultural change, and is working on Qualitative Methodology Matters: Creating and communicating qualitative research with impact, expected to be published in 2012. Her work has been featured in outlets such as Management Communication Quarterly, Electronic Journal of Communication, Western Journal of Communication, Journal of Family Communication, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Women Studies in Communication, Communication Theory, Human Communication Research, Qualitative Inquiry, Corrections Today, and Communication Monographs.


While Sarah J. Tracy does not specifically study and write about power, the topic is very prevalent throughout her scholarship. With her focus on research of work-life well-being, she is a pioneer in advancing theoretical knowledge in the field, which allows her to provide advice and coping mechanisms to those who suffer from hardships and injustices within the workplace. Through her research, she empowers people to regain control of their organizational environments, as well as their lives in general. There is a commonly-used phrase that “Knowledge is Power”; the knowledge that Tracy gains through her research gives her expert power to aid people in transforming their professional and personal lives for the better. Additionally, while her work investigates existing literature on concepts and theories, she utilizes existing information as a baseline to develop new theories, and publicly shares the true stories of those who regularly face misperceptions.


As part of PWWL research, workplace bullying is a commonly examined topic. Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy, and Alberts (2007) defined workplace bullying as “repeated and persistent negative actions towards one or more individual(s), which involve a perceived power imbalance and create a hostile work environment. Bullying is thus a form of interpersonal aggression or hostile, anti-social behavior in the workplace” (p. 838; emphasis in original). Tracy, Alberts, and Rivera (2009) described forms of negative acts which include “exclusion and isolation, nitpicking, criticism, humiliation and even hitting and slapping” (p. 2).

As Lutgen-Sandvik et al. (2007) researched, there are four features of workplace bullying which include intensity, repetition, duration, and power disparity. Intensity refers to the number of varying negative acts of abuse a target experiences. Repetition refers to frequency of the negative acts, or how often the acts occur. Duration is the period of time over which the negative acts occur, and power disparity means that the target feels unable to stop the perpetrator from continuing the abuse. Based on this research, the authors have constituted workplace bullying as occurring when an individual experiences “at least two negative acts, weekly or more often, for six or more months in situations where targets find it difficult to defend against and stop abuse” (p. 841). Lutgen-Sandvik et al. (2007) indicated that the negative ramifications of bullying targets, which can include damage to self-esteem, cognitive functioning, and physical and emotional health, can also affect interpersonal relationships and family functioning, while simultaneously causing increased stress for witnesses of bullying, as they live in fear of being the next targets (p. 838).

To study workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvik et al. (2007) conducted an online survey, using a Negative Acts Questionnaire (NAQ), of 403 US, white-collar employees (majority female) from 18 industries, 33 states, and ranging in age from 18 to 57. The survey results indicated that nearly one-fourth of American employees experience office bullying at some point in their work history. Of those bullied, increases in the amount of bullying increased the negative impacts of the abuse; the more an individual was bullied, the more stressed the individual became, while job satisfaction and job rating decreased. In addition, it was found that those who witnessed workplace bullying, but were not actually targets themselves, experienced higher levels of stress and lower levels of job satisfaction and overall job rating than those who did not witness bullying (p. 845-853). This research demonstrates that workplace bullying is a serious problem, and organizational members, especially managers and others in power, should recognize the impact of bullying on workgroups (both targets and witnesses), which can negatively affect employee productivity and retention.

Additional research conducted by Tracy et al. (2009) found that targets of workplace abuse often have difficulty voicing that abuse to those in power, primarily because when trying to tell their stories and promote change, targets are further victimized and blamed as trouble makers who cause problems. It is commonly understood that workplace behavior is supposed to be rational rather than emotional. When emotional stories are told, those in power rarely see victims as credible, because expressing emotion is not accepted within the workplace. Once credibility is lost, decision-makers are unlikely to help prevent the bullying from continuing (p. 2-4). In response to this problem, Tracy et al. (2009) developed a list of eight tactics to help targets of bullying tell more convincing stories so that decision-makers are more inclined to intervene and stop workplace bullying. These tactics include: 1) Be rational, 2) Express emotions appropriately, 3) Provide consistent details, 4) Offer a plausible story, 5) Be relevant, 6) Emphasize your own competence, 7) Show consideration for others’ perspectives, and 8) Be specific (p. 6-13). Through her advice to bullying targets, she uses her expert power to help victims cope with their situations, and empowers them to regain control of their professional and personal lives.


Emotion labor is defined as “the organizationally prescribed display of feeling” or the expression and suppression of emotion (Tracy, 2005, p. 261). In her studies of emotion labor, Tracy has sought to extend emotion labor theory beyond the concept that emotional labor discomfort is strictly due to emotive dissonance, which occurs when there is a disparity between an individual’s inner feelings and outward expressions. While emotion labor can be enjoyable, Tracy (2005) found that it is also associated with negative effects, including stress, emotional numbness, and burnout (p. 263). Tracy’s examination of emotion labor among different groups of workers has identified similarities in the ways emotional control is dispersed, and in the ways that discourses of power (such as talk and behavior) and organizational processes construct identity and impact emotion labor discomfort. In particular, in researching the work of correctional officers and cruise ship staff, Tracy enhances theoretical knowledge of emotion labor, while publicly sharing the true stories of individuals in these roles.

Dr. Tracy used participant observation and interviews to conduct both studies of emotion labor. In the correctional officer study, 109 participants (primarily Caucasian males) were observed and interviewed over an 11-month timeframe. In the cruise ship staff study, Tracy was employed by the Radiant Spirit cruise ship over an 8-month timeframe, which gave her ample opportunity to observe and interview 16 staff members (equally Caucasian male and female, ages 23 to 45) in addition to cruise passengers and the crew. Through her employment, she gained access to insider discourse that is commonly out of the public view.

The study results identified emotion labor norms and practices that exist within these roles, which differ from common perceptions as seen in the media. For example, due to the fact that the work of correctional officers is performed out of the public view, Tracy (2005) noted that correctional officers often face discourses, as seen in the media such as television’s Oz and movies like Shawshank Redemption, stereotyping them in a negative light, perceiving them as “brutal, stupid and sexually deviant” (p. 262). However, contrary to this belief, the emotion labor expectations of correctional officers are complex. Tracy (2005) found that while correctional officers are expected to be tough and suspicious of inmates, they are also required to suppress weak emotions, such as anger, pain, fear, and disgust, and must be warm, nurturing, and respectful to inmates, treating them as family and serving as mentors to help inmates turn their lives around (p. 267-271). Similarly, as seen in television shows like The Love Boat, and in commercials and brochures, people commonly perceive cruise ship staff as living the life of luxury, always happy and willing to please (Tracy, 2000, p. 103, 105). In reality, the role of a cruise staff member is not nearly as glamorous as it appears. As Tracy (2000) observed, cruise ship staff worked month-long contracts, never having a full day off. While they were allowed certain privileges, they were “on duty” for up to 15 hours per day (p. 100). Although staff were expected to express happiness when in the presence of passengers, the inner feelings of staff did not always match the outward expressions.

Through the examination of emotion labor norms and practices in these roles, emotional control and the construction of identity were found to have similar characteristics. For example, in the case of correctional officers, Tracy (2005) found that both organizational practices and inmates controlled officer emotions and identity. Officers were aware that they were constantly being watched by inmates, who would often try to distract them while attempting to warn other inmates of the officers’ presence (p. 268). Therefore, officers had to carry out suspicion, because it was an emotional norm, and because the discourse (talk and behavior) of the inmates required it. In the case of cruise ship staff, Tracy (2000) found that while organizational practices required certain emotional norms to be followed, cruise staff were constantly under surveillance of both management and passengers. For example, management developed a service program system mandating several control mechanisms, while passengers were quick to make comments to staff members, implying that they are supposed to be happy and alert at all times, when staff expressed emotions reflecting otherwise (p. 107-108). Clearly, cruise ship staff’s emotions were controlled at all times; not only because it was the norm, but because the discourse (talk and behavior) of both management and passengers required it.

In both studies, the construction of identity through discourses of power and organizational practices impacted emotion labor discomfort. With correctional officers, Tracy (2005) identified four factors that connect identity with the ease of emotion labor. These include: powerlessness both internally (as coercive power is removed with the requirement of acting compassionate toward inmates, and referent power is removed as inmates do not admire officers for respect they receive, as it is expected of officers) and externally (as officers are locked away from the public and are viewed by societal discourses as negative people), lack of interaction with similar others (limited peer interaction which allows officers to co-construct preferred identities through hidden transcripts, or private discourses occurring beyond observation), identification with work role (officers who highly identified with the role are more likely to engage in discomfort with emotion labor than those who viewed the role as just a job and confirm their identity elsewhere), and viewing emotion labor as a strategic interaction (less discomfort is experienced when emotion labor is framed as an exchange, such as expressing respect to inmates in exchange for easier inmate manageability, or suppressing emotions so inmates do not “push buttons”) (p. 273-278). With cruise ship staff, Tracy (2000) observed that hidden transcripts (private discourses occurring beyond observation) allowed staff to resist the emotional control of management and passengers, and provided an impression of self-control while making sense of their identities (p. 113-114).

Based on her research on emotion labor, Tracy (2005) concluded that emotion labor is not difficult only because of emotive dissonance, but also because “emotion work is intricately connected to discourses of power and organizational structures that enable and constrain the construction of identity (p. 278). In addition to advancing theoretical knowledge in the field of emotion labor, she utilized her gained expert power to publicize the true stories of correctional officers and cruise ship staff, which contradict typical media images and discourses of misperception.


Closely connected to emotion labor is the concept of burnout. Tracy (2007) defined burnout as “a three-dimensional concept characterized by 1) emotional exhaustion (or a “wearing out” from a job); 2) depersonalization or a negative shift in responses to others, such as clients; and 3) a decreased sense of personal accomplishment” (p. 31). Furthermore, she identified burnout’s connection to emotion labor, which occurs when employees are no longer able to control their emotions according to organizational practices (Tracy, 2000, p. 96).

Dr. Tracy advanced theoretical knowledge of burnout by investigating it not as an individual problem as a result of stress, but rather as an organizational dilemma as a contributor to stress. In other words, Tracy (2007) transformed research of burnout from focusing on the symptoms of burnout to evaluating the job stressors that cause those symptoms. While organizations are unable to control employee ability to exercise personal coping mechanisms to deal with stress and burnout, they are able to control the structures that create stress and burnout (p. 32).

Dr. Tracy examined correctional officers and the structural issues they encounter connected to burnout. She identified societal discourses of low prestige (society holding the role of correctional officer in low regard), contradictory organizational norms, limited opportunities for social support, and powerless organizational cultures as causes of stress and burnout (Tracy, 2007, p. 32-40). Tracy’s theory is that by identifying structural concerns that lead to burnout, organizations can promote change enabling employees to feel fulfilled in their roles, thus decreasing or even eliminating burnout altogether. In this case study, Tracy (2007) offered suggestions for change, including providing spaces for peers to co-construct preferred identities, educating outsiders about the importance and worth of employee work, and assisting employees in making sense of workplace tensions (p. 42). Once again, Tracy utilized her expert power to advise against hardships within the workplace, and aid in transformation to improve professional and personal lives.



Workplace bullying

Emotional labor

Occupational burnout

Work-life balance


Lutgen-Sandvik, P., Tracy, S. J., & Alberts, J. K. (2007). Burned by bullying in the American Workplace: Prevalence, Perception, Degree and Impact. Journal of Management Studies, 44, 837-862.

Project for Wellness and Work-Life (PWWL). (2010). Retrieved from Arizona State University, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication website:

Tracy, S. J. (n.d.). Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from Arizona State University Hugh Downs School of Human Communication website:

Tracy, S. J., Alberts, J. K., Rivera, K. D. (2009). How to bust the office bully: Eight tactics for explaining workplace abuse to decision-makers. In A. Varma (Ed.), Understanding and Addressing Workplace Bullying (pp. 1–16). Andhra Pradesh, India: ICFAI University Press.

Tracy, S. J. (2007). Power, paradox, social support, and prestige: A critical approach to addressing correctional officer burnout. In S.Fineman (Ed.), The Emotional Organization: Passions and Power (pp. 27–43). Oxford: Blackwell.

Tracy, S. J. (2005). Locking up emotion: Moving beyond dissonance for understanding emotion labor discomfort. Communication Monographs, 72, 261-283.

Tracy, S. J. (2000). Becoming a character for commerce: Emotion labor, self-subordination, and discursive construction of identity in a total institution. Management Communication Quarterly, 14, 90-128.

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