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Should You Demand Your Employees Fake Happiness?

A fascinating article on "emotional labor" argues against companies coercing staff into feigning cheerfulness. Is it OK to pay workers to pretend to be happy?

You go into a fast food shop or a shoe store. What are you expectations for the staff member who serves you? Politeness, sure. Knowledge of the products on offer and efficiency in getting you want you want? Fair enough. But how about a big smile and a sunny disposition?

As a consumer your initial response to this last requirement is probably, yes please. Of course it's nice to have service staff behave like they're thrilled to be at work and our mere presence in their establishment has genuinely brightened their day. But as a business owner, is it a good idea to actively require your employees to express joy at work, even if it's feigned?

That's the question posed by a fascinating recent article in the New Republic. Looking at the sandwich chain Pret a Manger, Timothy Noah argues that there's a dark side to forced cheer at work. Pret, Noah reports,

Keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A "mystery shopper" visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self.

So what's wrong with paying employees for "emotional labor" as well as simply slinging sandwiches? While empathy for pay may be a legitimate part of some professions, Noah feels introducing it to gigs where its not strictly necessary is a little sinister:

Emotional labor is not itself new. Prostitutes have faked orgasms for millennia. With greater sincerity (one hopes), undertakers calm the grieving, nurses comfort the sick, and migrant nannies lavish on other people's children the love they aren't present to furnish back home…

In all these instances, emotional labor served (legitimately or not) identifiable emotional needs. That's not true at Pret. Fast-food service is not one of the caring professions. The only imperatives typically addressed in a Pret shop are hunger and thirst. Why must the person who sells me a cheddar and tomato sandwich have "presence" and "create a sense of fun"? Why can't he or she be doing it "just for the money"?

Or, as Noah puts it elsewhere in the article, "Pret doesn't merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too." His concern, evidently, is that demanding cheer is demeaning, exploitative and dehumanizing, but psychology blog Mind Hacks, which commented thoughtfully on Noah's piece, notes that forcing people to fake emotions also has negative practical consequences.

Acting happy when you don't genuinely feel happy, creates "emotional dissonance" that "leads to burnout, low mood and poor job satisfaction," notes the blog. And monetizing emotion can cut into an employee's sense of the intrinsic value of their job. "It has the capacity to denigrate genuine compassion as ‘required labor,’" concludes the post. (For a deeper dive into the question of what areas of life shouldn't be invaded with the market logic of buying and selling, check out this fascinating essay from Michael J. Sandel.)

Meanwhile, researchers have also cast doubt on the long-term efficacy of "forced fun" at work, finding that required levity can lead to an array of bad outcomes such as burnout among employees, and that these cheerful work cultures often serve to distract workers from excessive control or poor conditions elsewhere in the business.

Do you think its right to require employees to be happy at work?

Posted: February 5, 2013, 9:24 AM