July 28, 2016

young woman holding paper smile in front of face, demonstrating the effect of positivity policies

Smile! Or Don’t! Positivity Policies and the NLRB

The NLRB, an organization whose negativity regularly sends chills down our spines,, recently came down hard on positivity policies. You know, the types of policies designed to do terrible things like encourage respectful communication between workers and their managers. This finding was triggered by a positivity clause found in T-Mobile’s employee handbook. In part, it read, “Employees 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.”

Now, my experience as a T-Mobile customer for a few months was, how shall I put this, awful. Regardless, I do have to come to the defense of policies that encourage people to be nice. More about that in a minute—here’s how the T-Mobile mess started.

Three years ago the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents T-Mobile workers, brought this positivity clause before the National Labor Relations Board. On April 29, after lengthy conversation and consideration, a ruling was made that employers cannot demand employees to maintain constant agreement at work. Simply stated, the NLRB ruled that employers can’t keep their employees from arguing, or being in a bad mood.

And, PLEASE note, this ruling by the NLRB is not just a problem faced by big companies like T-Mobile. The NLRB has a reputation for going after employers with as few as ten employees over the same kinds of policies.

But…can’t workplaces aim for positivity?

In life, and at work as well, tone means everything. I can recall just about every adult in my life demanding at one time or another that I “watch my tone.” “You need to watch your tone, son.” It’s a simple statement—if you want to be respected, show it. If you want to be heard, start off by not screaming at me. If you want to survive to live another day, how about you go apologize to your mother?

Look, I get it: We are adults and don’t need to be treated like children. People do not always love their work and are not always in a good mood. That can be especially so when there is dissatisfaction over issues like pay, working conditions, and benefits. This is where the NLRB says policies like T-Mobile’s have run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. They say that if a policy can even remotely cause an employee to think that they can’t scream at you over how much or how they are getting paid, then your policy is illegal and they can sue you over it.

There’s a fine line here. Should employees be required to communicate positively with management? Who’s to decide how positive communication is defined? My business owes its existence in part to the fact that legislators and regulators make up rules and enforce interpretations of laws and regulations. However, this particular positivity clause in T-Mobile’s Employee Handbook encourages open communication, but asks/requires employees to do so in a civil way. Is that a problem?

If there’s a place and a time for incivility, how often should that place be “at work”?

Let’s be real, has every discussion you’ve had been held in a civil manner? Have those discussions always ended negatively? I assume that the answer to each of those questions is no—so anger can occasionally be unavoidable, necessary, and/or effective. But let’s also recognize that when everyone starts off at “anger level 10,” the likelihood of having a constructive conversation with positive outcomes is greatly reduced.

As an HR professional I can tell you exactly what type of employees T-Mobile’s policy is really aimed at. They are called bullies, and the only way they know how to get what they want is to yell about it. These employees have learned, somehow, that being aggressive and completely unconcerned about how what they are saying is going to land on people is the best way to approach every situation in life.

Bullies aside, negative conversations, arguments, and debates can sometimes improve a team of employees and provide positivity. No one is constantly in a good mood. There are reasons some discourse could be helpful for getting along in the workplace:

  • Effective team communication can improve productivity. People disagree, it’s been happening since the beginning of mankind. What’s important is that we learn when to seek compromise, and when to agree to disagree. Working situations out through effective communication can be a team-building exercise, and some of the most productive meetings can result from working to reconcile dissenting opinions, and the constructive brainstorming that often follows. This can squash the initial negativity and replace it with real optimism.
  • What you do to build and maintain a positive work environment can make employees and patients happier. Creating a place where employees enjoy coming to work—and hiring team members who enjoy and are great at what they do—goes hand in hand with creating a place that’s friendly and welcoming to your patients.
  • Valuing honesty from your employees is the best policy, even if that means occasional disagreement. Every member of your team should feel comfortable participating and offering their insights and expertise. But I would add that once people start showing a lack of respect for each other, in what they say or how they say it, nothing constructive can be found. Even without a blanket prohibition on negativity, it is possible to show your team that you value respectful communication—especially by example. And whenever you hear a complaint, ask the employee to suggest several possible solutions—at least some of which should not involve spending more money.

Overall, how much positivity can be expected in the workplace is a matter of opinion and very situational. And thanks to the NLRB, dealing with disrespectful employees may now be a situation-dependent matter for careful coaching, rather than a topic that can be covered by a black-and-white policy. I am not saying employers should turn their heads from horrible behavior, but maybe try to look at every situation from as positive a standpoint as possible to muster up a reasonable solution for unruly employees. The next time you have to deal with a grumpy or angry employee, don’t feed off their negativity, and show them the glass can be half full—even at work.

And whatever you do, according to the National Labor Relations Board, don’t make it an official requirement that the employee speak to you in a civil manner when discussing work-related issues. I hope that last sentence sounds as nuts to you as it did to me when I wrote it.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature, and is not intended to replace good counsel about a specific issue with either your attorney or your favorite HR expert.

If you’re an independent medical or dental employer and you’d like CEDR’s help determining whether your employee handbook policies are legally compliant, please call 866-414-6056, or email info@cedrsolutions.com

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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