I saw a headline in my news feed recently that stopped me in my tracks.

“Chief Happiness Officer Is the Latest, Creepiest Job in Corporate America”

Why would promoting happiness be considered creepy?

The piece, written by Josh Kovensky for New Republic, offers a pretty cynical take on the movement to improve workers’ well-being. He actually compares the concept of “chief happiness officer” to the “war on terror.” I think he means to draw only a linguistic comparison, but I honestly can’t tell for sure. He worries about privacy violations, intrusions on employees’ emotions, and that the bottom line will always be profit over people.

I suspect Kovensky’s concerns are valid in some cases. But I don’t think we should throw the concept out entirely. Even if you find the idea of a “Chief Happiness Officer” to be hopelessly condescending, I don’t think we should discourage companies from investing in employees’ happiness. And that applies even if the motive is only to increase the bottom line. Happiness as a side effect of a profit increase? Works for me (assuming it’s not at the expense of another group’s happiness).

Alexander Kjerulf, who literally speaks for Chief Happiness Officers on his blog, argued in a recent interview that investing in employee happiness is the moral thing for companies to do. He said, “It’s also a question of right and wrong. Creating a workplace where people hate to work...that is just wrong. That is ethically and morally a bad thing.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I certainly don’t think companies should violate their employees’ privacy. That’s a no-brainer. There are ways to increase happiness without reading your employees’ email.

Nor should employers mandate cheeriness. It’s not good to be happy all the time, and it’s not a character flaw to be unhappy. Perceived unhappiness should not be used as an indicator that someone isn’t fulfilling their professional duties. Especially when you consider the fact that certain personality types—quiet types, introverts—might be misunderstood as unhappy.

Having said all that, I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of a Chief Happiness Officer. Workplace culture is a key part of any organization, and I’m always glad to see companies caring about it. Even if the appointment of a CHO is meant to advance the bottom line, I imagine the types of people who would be drawn to this role are a bit less cynical in their approach.

Here’s what I’d do in the role:

  • Recognize that productivity does not correlate to time spent “working.” Productivity is about value delivered. Period. Sometimes high value is delivered in a short amount of time.

  • Maximize agency. Be as flexible as possible about when, where, and how the work gets done. Of course, sometimes rules are needed, but they should be for a specific, proven reason. They should never be arbitrary or because "that's the way we've always done it."

  • Recognize that people will be happy and productive when they have enough time to fulfill their responsibilities to their families and take care of personal issues.

  • Recognize the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Social interaction with co-workers should not be a job requirement. No “mandated fun.”

  • Implement 80/20 time or, better yet, create a full-time culture of employee-led innovation. Create opportunities for low-risk experiments, and allow employees to place little bets.

How about you? Would you appreciate a Chief Happiness Officer at your place of work? Or would you feel imposed upon? Curious to know your thoughts.

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