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Hate Your Job? It's Illegal For Your Boss To Force You To Act Happy

All the perks in the world don't need to make you smile, says the government.

Hate Your Job? It's Illegal For Your Boss To Force You To Act Happy
[Photo: Sean De Burca/Getty Images; App Photo: Focus Features (Lost In Translation, 2003)]

More managers than ever are striving to create a happy workplace culture brimming with enthusiasm, rainbows, and increasingly obscure perks. But can a company actually require that employees be positive at work?

The National Labor Relations Board has weighed in on this question, and their answer is that you are free to be as grumpy or disagreeable as you please. Or, in other words, your employer can’t force you to be happy at your job.

Blend Images via Shutterstock

This is the general idea of the board’s ruling, but the question was raised in a much more specific context, in a case brought before the board three years ago by the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents some T-Mobile workers.

In its employee handbook, T-Mobile wrote: "Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, coworkers, and management." The union took issue with it because it was so general and could be interpreted by employees to mean that they should not complain about issues at work—and impede their right to unionize and advocate for better working conditions.

The NLRB agreed, saying that employees have the right to be unhappy at their jobs and express that. Organizing for better working conditions clearly requires strife and controversy, their ruling says. And the handbook gives no criteria for determining what actions fail to maintain a positive work environment or working relationships.

The CWA has been on a long-running mission to unionize T-Mobile workers, but so far only has two union contracts, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, covering only 30 of its 45,000 employees. So the case needs to be seen in that context: This kind of employee handbook wording may seem innocuous on the part of T-Mobile, but it may be part of its anti-union stance. More recently, this year, the CWA accused T-Mobile of illegally creating a company-run "fake union" in order to hinder the formation of an independent one.

Beyond this specific case, the ruling should be assuring to even white collar professional workers who are not ever likely to unionize. These are the people most likely to work for employers that spend big money on workplace wellness and happiness programs. These kinds of programs can offer decent perks, but it’s nice to know that if you’re fired for your job for scowling in your cubicle and not attending office happy hours, the nation’s arbitrators of employment law might have your back.

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