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.” …

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The Negative Outlook of Mandatory Positivity

The Negative Outlook of Mandatory Positivity

In late April, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a provision in T-Mobile’s employee handbook violated its employees’ rights to be unhappy at work:

The document included a clause about positivity, reading, in part, “[e]mployees 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, co-workers, and management.” … The NLRB’s ruling … said that requiring employees to maintain a “positive work environment” is too restrictive, as the workplace can sometimes get contentious. You can’t keep your employees from arguing. The key here is recognizing that being positive at work is good for business, but what’s good for business is not always good for labor. The NLRB says that workers have a right to express negativity at work because they have a right to be unhappy with their jobs.

At the time, Workforce‘s legal expert Jon Hyman derided the ruling as another gross overreach by the board: “Translation? Good luck writing a handbook policy that even touches employee communications that will pass muster with the NLRB.” Many employers surely agreed.

But what if the effort the NLRB nixed to enforce a “positive work environment” actually makes the environment worse? At the New Yorker this weekend, Maria Konnikova took a deeper dive into the psychology of why enforcing positivity can easily backfire:

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