A Little Ray of Sunshine

An Aussie café employee was sacked for failing to use a happy face emoji in a text reply to her boss. The Fair Work Commission, rightly in this case, ruled that this was an unfair dismissal. I suspect that decision took about two seconds to make.

Somewhere and somehow, a manager believed that an emoji with a smiling face was evidence of happiness, and that happiness was a critical aspect of the performance contract.

This kind of case raises a few good questions. Firstly, is an employee’s happiness any business of their manager? Secondly, is happiness required for the performance of anyone’s duties? We could do some navel gazing here and ask if we even know what happiness is in the first place. For some, happiness is, at best, fleeting. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are hard wired to be dissatisfied, so if employers feel obliged to keep people happy at work, then they’re planning to go shoveling at the Augean Stables.  

The wider issue that has concerned the world of social psychology for a long time, is whether there is any proven link between happiness and productivity. Our first reaction is to say, ‘yes! surely!’ But here’s the problem. Proof. Are you certain that productivity rises alongside happiness? Does it also fall in lock step with unhappiness?

You don’t need to conduct research. You might have noticed that unhappy people can produce good work and faithfully do what they are paid to do. You might have also noticed that happy people, even people who lighten the workplace for everyone else, can sometimes be quite distracted and ineffective.

Of course, most of us prefer a workplace where people are not miserable, because that’s a drain. And no sane employer in the modern world would create an environment in which workers are likely to become anxious or depressed, but sometimes we need to revisit the line between the employment contract and the human being.

Peter Drucker, that wise guru of the workplace, would remind us that happiness is none of our employer’s business.

Nearly fifty years ago, Drucker said that ‘Employment is a specific contract calling for specific performance. Any attempt to go beyond that is usurpation. It is immoral, as well as an illegal intrusion of privacy. It is abuse of power. An employee owes no ‘loyalty,’ he owes no ‘love’ and no ‘attitude’ – he owes performance and nothing else. The task is not to change personality, but to enable a person to achieve and to perform.’

A manager’s role is to create an environment in which good performers are likely to meet their needs. Factors, such as meaningful work, respectful communication, interesting work, and autonomy, are so much more likely to inspire good work. Whether the person makes that connection, is not within a manager’s control. You can lead the horse to water – and you know the rest.

We are required, as employers, to provide support to people who are struggling. We are not required, or invited, to force everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Way back at the Hawthorne experiments, it was concluded that productivity might increase with respect and treating people as human beings. It was a simple message. It deserves a replay, but please pay attention to the word, might. If anyone wants to debate this, then I’m happy to hear from you. Well, maybe not exactly happy.    

2 thoughts on “A Little Ray of Sunshine”

  1. Very interesting perspective and that Mr Drucker knew what he was talking about. I work for myself and have I ever been happy? Have I bog roll! Really – I need to talk to management.

  2. I suspect the cafe-owner’s displeasure with the lack of Cheshire Cat emoji was taken personally, rather than being a reflection of the employee’s presumed unhappiness with the job itself. In which case, it all seems rather superficial.

    I like Drucker’s perspective – takes the pressure off everyone, which probably contributes to a more relaxed outcome anyway.

    Very thought-provoking Cheryl.

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