Mandatory Positivity Leads to Lawsuit at Trader Joe’s

Mandatory Positivity Leads to Lawsuit at Trader Joe’s

We’ve talked before about how workplace policies that require constant positivity on the part of employees tend to be counterproductive, attracting unwelcome scrutiny from regulators while stressing out employees and hindering constructive conflict. As technology makes it ever more possible to monitor employees’ emotional states, these new possibilities have opened up a new debate regarding how much sense it makes to try and manage employee happiness, with critics saying such efforts infringe on individual liberty to an unacceptable extent.

One employer that puts a premium on positivity is Trader Joe’s, the discount grocery chain, where a former employee has filed an unfair labor practices charge alleging that he was dismissed for his attitude not being “genuinely” positive. The New York Times‘ Noam Scheiber discussed the case late last week:

According to an unfair labor practices charge filed on Thursday with a National Labor Relations Board regional office, Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude.

The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a “Wow customer experience,” which is defined in the company handbook as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.” …

Mr. Nagle’s filing challenges policies that appear in the Trader Joe’s crew handbook and job bulletins, and which were read aloud to him. One of the latter required employees to maintain a “positive attitude.”

Some labor experts say such policies may be illegal because federal labor law gives employees the right to discuss working conditions and the merits of joining a union with one another, and to complain about working conditions to the public, including customers. Any company rule that an employee would reasonably interpret as discouraging these activities is most likely to be illegal, according to Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

Building on Scheiber’s story, Melissa Dahl at Science of Us revisits the reasons why mandatory happiness often backfires:

In 2003[,] Alicia A. Grandey of Pennsylvania State University published a summary of surveys filled out by 131 administrative assistants, one of whom confided to her, “It’s frustrating at times to always be courteous and helpful to those who may not act as such in return. We need to keep smiling when we really don’t feel that way.” They were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, how often they felt like they did the following while at work:

  • ”Just pretend to have the emotions I need to display for my job.”
  • ”Put on an act in order to deal with customers in an appropriate way.”

In the end, Grandey found a clear link between behaviors like these and “emotional exhaustion,” one of the core components of job burnout. Other research backs up this finding: Faking a cheery attitude is exhausting, and it often results in burned-out employees.