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You Have to Go to Work, but You Sure Don’t Have to Like It

An NLRB ruling strikes back at company-mandated positivity. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

You hate your job. Now you can make sure your boss knows it.

According to a new ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, companies can no longer mandate that employees maintain a positive attitude at work. The ruling, which arose from a conflict over a requirement in T-Mobile’s employee handbook stating that workers 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,” suggests that workers have the right to express concern over the nature of their work.

There are obvious benefits to maintaining a positive, carefree work environment. We’ve seen this in the rise of decadent office perks in the burgeoning post-industrial knowledge economy: ping-pong tables, happy hours, and the free snacks that a 2015 survey identified as a crucial influence over employee happiness. As the Huffington Post’s Shane Ferro points out, employee happiness is a factor in workplace productivity. Happier workers are more productive workers: 2015 research suggests that happier employees are 12 percent more productive, and a positive work environment “improves people’s relationships with each other and amplifies their abilities and their creativity,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

But there’s a fine line between happy workers and powerless workers. Promoting happiness through perks like ping-pong tables and free snacks is one thing, but to the NLRB, requiring a positive attitude is the equivalent of suppressing dissent and criticism, a workplace requirement that verges on preventing workers from organizing around shared grievances. Criticizing management doesn’t necessarily fall under the rubric of a “positive work environment,” but it’s an essential avenue for protecting the rights of labor.

This is a distinction the NLRB is eager to delineate in its April 29 ruling: “Because labor disputes and union organizing efforts frequently involve controversy, criticism of the employer, arguments, and less-than-‘positive’ statements about terms and conditions of employment, employees reading the rule here would reasonably steer clear of a range of potentially controversial but protected communication in the workplace for fear of running afoul of the rule.”

A mantra of workplace positivity — BuzzFeed’s infamous maxim of “no haters” comes to mind — has a chilling effect on workers fighting for their well-being, and that’s a problem worth clarifying.

There’s a fine line between happy workers and powerless workers.

This is a truth of the American economy: A cult of optimism is a sad, sorry salve for the exploitation of the modern knowledge worker. Our knowledge economy has brought with it the expectation that Americans will work longer and harder, and all the perks can mask the deeper issues at play in ever-demanding companies. “It was surreal, and cruel, but everyone at HubSpot acted as if this were perfectly normal,” wrote technology writer Dan Lyons of his stint at software company HubSpot. “We were told we were ‘rock stars’ who were ‘inspiring people’ and ‘changing the world,’ but in truth we were disposable.” (HubSpot euphemistically referred to employees’ termination as “graduation,” a cruel example of the saccharine doublethink of the positivity-obsessed start-up culture.)

The driver, of course, is fear — a fear that a mantra of positivity prevents employees from coherently addressing. Consider the case of Meghann Foye, the author of Meternity, who wrote to the New York Post about co-workers engaging in unusual practices to avoid burnout rather than addressing a toxic workplace culture that emerged in the wake of the 2008 recession. “People were lucky to have jobs at all,” she explained. “Assistants and perks disappeared across industries, and I felt like the cultural expectation was that we should now be tethered to our desks and our smartphones.”

Of course, as Ferro points out, “promoting positivity at work and demanding it are two different things.” But in a start-up-laden economy where “cultural fit” is as much a prerequisite for your standing in a fluid workplace, those expectations of positivity can essentially become demands in everything but name only. The trend of unionization among digital media shops, themselves the poster-children for Millennial exploitation, captures the growing desire for recourse in a workplace smothered by unreasonable and illogical expectations of employers looking to squeeze every last drop from their workers.

The NLRB ruling is, in some ways, a wink and nod to knowledge workers effectively bribed into silence by snacks and ping-pong and inane mantras about workplace culture. No longer can employees be read the Riot Act over not being a team player, or not subscribing to a company mantra. Yes, you can hate your job — but more importantly, you bosses can’t stop you from doing something about it.