Forcing employees to act happy only makes them more miserable

Sunny side up.
Sunny side up.
Image: Jennifer Aniston/Office Space
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In theory, cheerful employees make companies look like they’re good employers, which woos consumers. But as it turns out, mandating a positive attitude at work can actually backfire on bosses.

Take the case of Thomas Nagle, an employee at a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan, who last week filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, a government agency in charge of enforcing US labor law. Nagle alleges he was fired for having a bad attitude, according to the New York Times, and repeatedly reprimanded by managers who found his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He also described pressure tactics by his less-than-cheery Trader Joe’s managers, who used the store’s loudspeaker, for instance, to chastise workers for talking to each other while working.

The quirky supermarket chain with 459 locations in the US trades on the happy and helpful demeanor of its Hawaiian-shirt-clad employees. The California company has long encouraged workers to be sunny by granting bonuses to the super solicitous, and by mandating cheeriness in its employee handbook. For example, it instructs workers to create a “wow customer experience” and encouraging them to “delight” in shopping there.

Cheeriness directives may sound absurd, but the practice of mandating positive attitudes is becoming more common, as companies use over-the-top customer service to compete for customers, and seemingly upbeat workplaces to attract talent.

Employee handbooks are a common place for companies to enforce their flair. But describing cheer isn’t easy, and the resulting confusion can end up making employees more fearful than cheerful, by preventing them from speaking openly about their job and work conditions, which is their legal right.

For example, earlier this year the NLRB ruled that T-Mobile’s requirement that worker communication “be conducive to a positive work environment” left employees baffled about what not being positive meant, and how it might be punished.

Research has shown that forcing workers to put on a happy face is bad for the bottom line.  A psychology researcher at Pennsylvania State University found that administrative assistants who forced the act of being courteous or helpful became emotionally exhausted, and that faking positive emotions at work can lead to worker burnout.

In work as in life, it seems that happiness only pays off when the feelings are genuine.