Why don’t you smile?

Back in the day, when I toiled thanklessly as a retail monkey, I got in trouble (more than once) for not being happy enough at work. And just last night, I got a teamwork cheer from my very first job stuck in my head on a loop. So when I caught a story on CBC Radio about how companies ruin productivity by trying to force employees to be happy – or at least look it – I had a few points of response to get out.

The segment talked about employee burnout with regard to forced cheerfulness, but I didn’t feel it provided the insight that drives this point home. When a company, either at the corporate level or at a local management level, constantly badgers workers to ‘put on a smile’, one of two things is bound to happen.

One is that the workers will make a genuine effort. They’ll get to work, leave their personal lives at the door, and do everything they can to be the brightest little ray of sunshine they can. That is until they run into the hard wall of their own human fragility. Perhaps they experience a bout of depression, or there is a crisis of health (their own, or that of a close relative). Maybe they just get tired and overwhelmed with all the effort this cheerfulness takes. Whatever it is, they’ll experience emotion that isn’t ‘positive’ while at work. Suddenly, they’re overcome with guilt for not fulfilling their duty to the company. That bout of bad feels will make it even harder to summon up the requisite smile. And on it goes, round and round, until productivity is non-existent. They’ll take swaths of sick days until management is forced to fire them, or they quit.

The other is that workers will get pissed off at the very suggestion that they force themselves to put on happy faces. They won’t go out of their way to scowl at customers, but neither will they conform to the rule. They’ll feel their feelings and get on with things. Maybe they’ll be awesome and productive, which makes it difficult to fire them for grumpiness. Yet each time they’re reminded to put on a smile, their grumpiness will increase. And productivity will decrease. These workers might also become resentful, to the point where they consider stealing from the company, or being otherwise destructive. Again, management is relegated to firing them, unless they too submit their resignations.

What these companies fail to realize is that workers don’t want team-building exercises, or cute little cheers to be shouted at top volume when a bell gets rung. Shock of shockers, employees want to be treated as human beings. Maybe, dare I say it, even granted the smallest shred of empathy. Companies that recognize the humanity of their workforce will always out-produce companies that do everything in their power to pretend that shit doesn’t happen. Employees who work for empathetic companies want to do well for those companies. They might, of their own free will, put in extra time, or go above and beyond for a customer. Humanity is team-building.

I also felt a pang of recognition when the segment guest mentioned that this burden of good feeling is disproportionately shouldered by women in the workplace. I would like to take the opportunity to tell everybody in attendance, whether at work or just out on the street, I’m not obligated to make you feel better by smiling. Kindly and with all due respect, fuck off.

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