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Unhappy thinking about a Chief Happiness Officer

A recent article in Inc. magazine highlights the idea of a Chief Happiness Officer. I can say with certainty that I’m not waiting in line to get on the “Chief Happiness Officer” bandwagon. The entire concept is so absurd that I experienced an unpleasant visceral reaction reading an article advocating for the position recently. Having over 25 years of professional experience as a manager, small business owner and strategic HR consultant focusing on employee engagement, I am compelled to raise the flags of reason and common sense around this bizarre notion.

Let’s start with the premise that anyone or anything, particularly a CHO or the workplace, can “make” someone happy is profoundly misguided. The illusive emotion of happiness may quite possibly be the most studied, researched, questioned and sought after of all human conditions. Happiness, however you define it, comes from within - not outside - one’s self. If an intrepid alchemist eventually does come up with a happiness elixir whose efficacy is equal for all, that person will be enshrined as legend forever.

I am also intrigued and annoyed that the two key terms were frequently used synonymously. The writer seems to infer “happiness” and “engagement” mean basically the same thing. In my professional opinion these terms have quite different meaning; especially in the context of the workplace. One describes an emotion, the other something you do. An employer could have a fully engaged, productive employee who is not particularly happy as well as a lazy, unproductive individual who is happy as a clam while playing Angry Birds tucked in their cubicle. My working definition of an engaged employee is very succinct: someone who knows what to and wants to do it. They are productive and accountable for their actions - even when no one is watching.

My understanding of the term happiness is much more about how one “feels." Additionally, if you’re considering an employee engagement survey tool oriented to “measuring levels of happiness” I recommend you keep shopping. Imagine a long serving engaged, productive worker who recently lost a family member or has been diagnosed with a serious health problem a week before they take the survey. Or conversely, how about the unmotivated, disengaged employee whose child just won a prestigious academic award? How can one possibly draw accurate, meaningful data from such an exercise targeting “employee happiness?" It’s not possible and it doesn’t make sense.

All of us experience fluctuations in the level of our happiness for an infinite array of reasons. That level may be influenced by something to do with work, but I believe when I think of the depth and breadth of my life with all the people and events in it, it’s almost offensive to imagine some CHO guy mucking around with the very definition of my personal privacy.

More practical questions arose while reading as well. For example, what would the resume look like from a person interviewing for a CHO position? What experience would be required, i.e. “I made most people happy at my last employer?" Who says that? How could you possibly measure the performance of the CHO? What programs or initiatives would this person undertake? Placing a vase of fresh flowers on your desk each morning? Running around in a clown suit every Wednesday after 4? Free tickets to the local comedy club for that week’s “#1 Happiest Employee?" Do they activate all the web cams in workstation computers to monitor how often you smile? Who would want to work at a place like that? It literally sounds like a crazy farm.

There are few fundamental concepts presented in the article that I will sign up for. I agree that an employer should make a reasonable effort to provide a comfortable and pleasant work environment so people can experience some level of enjoyment and a sense of positivity. They shouldn’t have to suffer obsolete technology or worn out office furniture. Employee satisfaction is worthwhile to pay attention to. I also believe that an employer should be continuously striving to be intentionally aware of and actively engaged in supporting the well-being of their people. Offering EAP programs have become very popular in recent years for this very purpose. Any place you spend a minimum of 40 hours a week should be where you look forward to being rather than dreading. It’s not about attempting to engender happiness, it’s about intentional, substantive and genuine efforts to provide a nice and supportive place to earn a living.

Posted on August 11, 2014 by JOHN FARNER, SENIOR ORGANIZATIONAL ADVISOR

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