Duke Fuqua’s Kay: Pursuing Your Passion May Lead to Exploitation

Duke Fuqua's Aaron Kay is Poets&Quants' Professor of the Week for his research on the downside of passion

Duke Fuqua’s Aaron Kay is Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week for his research on the downside of passion

“Follow your passion.”

How often have you heard that mantra, from self-help books, TED Talks, or well-meaning friends?

It can be good advice for people who actually have a passion to pursue, leading to fulfilling lives and careers.

But it can also lead to exploitation at work: Passionate people are asked to do menial tasks, do things for free, and work longer hours than the average drone who just collects a paycheck.  

That’s the surprising and disturbing finding of a new study by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Aaron Kay of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. 


The paper, “Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributions of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers,” was co-authored by Kay, Troy H. Campbell of the University of Oregon, Steven Shepherd of Oklahoma State University, and Jae Yun Kim, a Ph.D. candidate at Fuqua, and appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The authors first acknowledge the beneficial aspects of having a passion. “Passionate people enjoy greater well-being: They report lower stress and depression,” they write. “Passion does not only benefit individuals; it is also in organizations’ interest to hire those driven by passion.”

But there’s also a dark side for employees driven by passion: “While passion may seem like a uniformly positive (or at least harmless) attribute to assume in others, it may also legitimize and justify potentially exploitative managerial practices,” the authors observe.


Exploitation is a strong word that carries associations of sweatshops and child labor. But there are different forms of exploitation, the researchers write, including what they dub “passion exploitation,” which they call “a nuanced and insidious form of exploitation.”

“It is exploitative when management, representing their and the organization’s goals and interests, require some workers to work excessively or to engage in unusually demeaning tasks without extra pay or tangible rewards,” Kay and his co-authors write.

“The passionate workers do not receive any compensation for their extra work, even when they are asked to sacrifice important aspects of their life and undertake demeaning tasks that are largely irrelevant to their job descriptions.”

But don’t passionate people want to go the extra mile, to help their companies and their teams succeed? And don’t they consider “job descriptions” irrelevant and “demeaning” tasks just part of getting the job done?


“There is nothing ethically wrong with a workplace allowing employees who want to spend more time working on projects to do so,” the researchers respond. “But it becomes problematic when passionate workers are asked by management—the people who exercise great influence over the workers’ livelihood by controlling promotions and the like—to do more than others on the grounds that they like or enjoy their job more than nonpassionate workers.”

And there’s the rub: managements pile more on passionate workers—and don’t compensate them for it—precisely because they love their jobs. It becomes at once a rationalization for and legitimization of taking advantage of that group of workers. 

The researchers tested their hypotheses through eight studies, including a comprehensive examination of whether people legitimize exploiting those who are drawn to occupations that tend to draw passionate people, like the arts and social services. They also did direct studies in which they randomly varied the level of workers’ perceived passion to determine whether the experimental subjects viewed the exploitative treatment of strongly passionate workers as more legitimate.


Their conclusion: Although passion appears to be a positive attribute, “it can license poor treatments of passionate workers,” partly because managers justify it by saying the workers were so passionate they’d have put in extra hours or worked for free anyway—or because work is its own reward.

Kay, the J. Rex Fuqua Professor of Management and Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, bridges several disciplines in his work: organizational behavior and structure, social motivations and perception, and social justice. 

He uses insights from psychology and cognitive science to understand organizational problems and to deal with issues like the relationship between political ideology, religious beliefs, and social change, as well as how women can best combat institutional sexism and discrimination.

Kay, 43, got his BA from McGill University and his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. He has been at Duke since 2010 and before that taught at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

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