The Right Not to Be Fun at Work

I have a friend who works for a company that requires her to share a hotel room with a colleague when she travels on business. This is bad under any circumstances. It is especially bad if you’re sick, pregnant, congested, flatulent, somnambulant; if you’re a night owl or an early bird; if you have a medical condition necessitating privacy; or if you just prefer to spend your precious downtime bingeing “Love Is Blind” in a judgment-free zone. Being forced to see a co-worker in a towel or listen to her snore ought to be illegal. Despite raising obvious issues with sexual harassment and with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is not.

Thankfully, there’s France, home of the right to ignore your e-mail on the weekend and the right not to eat at your desk. In another win for workplace dignity, one of the nation’s highest courts recently suggested that businesses cannot force their employees to participate in office parties and other supposedly enjoyable activities. The case dates back to 2015, when a man, known as Monsieur T., sued his former employer, the Paris-based management-consulting firm Cubik Partners, for wrongful termination. Monsieur T.’s demand for reinstatement was dismissed in labor court. An appeals court then found that Cubik had not erred in letting him go for, among other things, failing to take part in a workplace culture that the company calls, in a bit of corporate Franglish, “fun & pro.” In its recent decision, however, the high court overturned that ruling. Citing the European Convention on Human Rights and the French labor code, the court held that Monsieur T. had no obligation to attend retreats and Friday apéros. In fact, his bosses’ expectation that he join in violated his freedom of expression. Call it, as Arte did, “the right not to be fun.”

Monsieur T.—a hero for these times of quiet quitting and establishing work-life boundaries? In contrast to his American namesake, who gamely played Santa in the Reagan White House, he might be thought of as a leading patron for the cause of just saying no to awkward extracurriculars. One can imagine him resisting even the increasingly elaborate trips and events that companies are using to try to lure employees back into face-to-face interaction. Faux calf-roping, anyone? Shooting foam-tipped arrows at the C.E.O.? If only Monsieur T. had been there to steer Portia, of “The White Lotus,” away from the Palermo off-site.

Monsieur T. joined Cubik Partners in 2011, as a senior consultant, and was promoted to director before being fired, in March of 2015. According to a lower court, a dismissal letter criticized his tepid attitude toward the company’s “fun & pro” ethos along with other failings, including “his sometimes brittle and demotivating tone vis-à-vis his subordinates and his inability to accept the point of view of others.” According to its Web site, Cubik is “a deeply human organization” that “seeks personalities before skills.” A section for prospective hires reveals that you don’t just work at Cubik, you “Be Cubik.” An online quiz prompts you to discover your Cubik profile: Reflection, Action, or Relation. “Cubik’s V.I.P. drinks have hardly begun and you’ve already talked to all the guests,” the description for the last category reads. “You now know at which sport Jean-Yves is unbeatable, where Joëlle will spend her vacations, and that Antoine has planned to cross Slovenia on a tandem bicycle.” Whew. Jean-Yves, Joëlle, and Antoine might be having the time of their lives. Or they might be frantically texting the babysitter or wishing they were at yoga class.

Cubik boasts, “Because we are proud of our culture, we have many rituals for getting together.” These include an annual corporate retreat just before the summer holidays, “to celebrate the past season and take a step back from working.” In his lawsuit, Monsieur T. remembered such bonding experiences rather differently. The biggest problem, his lawyer, Isabelle Galy, told me, was that the company culture involved a lot of drinking. “There was a strong incentive and even obligation to consume alcohol,” Galy said. Monsieur T. alleges that he was subjected to “humiliating and intrusive practices such as the simulation of sexual acts, the obligation to share a bed with a colleague during seminars, the usage of nicknames and the posting in the office of deformed and doctored photographs.”

Through a lawyer, Cubik Partners denied these allegations and said that Monsieur T. had been fired for “professional incompetence,” not because he refused to take part in “a so-called apéro culture.” The lawyer also specified that the firm’s “fun & pro” values mainly referred to its type of management based on feedback and its work in small teams. The high court referred the case back to an appeals court and it is ongoing.

Clearly, fun is a highly subjective concept, but plenty of experts have argued for its inclusion in the workplace. “I have a basic rule: If it’s not fun, I’m not doing it,” Greg Winteregg wrote in his 2019 book, “Fun at Work: More Time, Freedom, Profit and More of What You Love to Do,” perhaps inspired by Richard Branson’s earlier manifesto “The Virgin Way: If It’s Not Fun, It’s Not Worth Doing.” (Given Monsieur T.’s alleged experiences, one can’t fault him for adopting a different approach: “If it’s fun, I’m not doing it!”) A U.K. company called the Fun Experts offers corporate rentals—air hockey, arcade machines, cotton-candy machines, human-size snow globes, rodeo sheep, egg-and-spoon races for team building—and a subscription service that supplies companies with monthly fun items, such as, say, a digital graffiti wall.

In “Fun at Work: How to Boost Creativity, Unleash Innovation, and Reinvent the Future of Work Using the Transformative Power of Play” (2022), David Thomas, the book’s co-author and “a scholar of fun” at the University of Denver, argues that “learning to goof around” can make employees more satisfied in their work and more supple in solving problems. Over e-mail the other day, he warned, however, that ludic activities should be strictly voluntary. Taste plays a key role in distinguishing between amusement and annoyance, he added: “We don’t all like rollercoasters or opera. So, any fun thing in the workplace has to be optional, or complex enough that different kinds of people can find different ways to participate according to their preference.”

Work fun is fine, but it is a poor substitute for the attributes that make a workplace truly attractive: job stability, proper benefits, equal pay, prospects for advancement, flexibility, a respectful and well-resourced environment. Nobody wants a field trip at the expense of a generous vacation allowance—and, as I’ve written, women disproportionately bear the costs of having to attend social events outside of working hours. Plenty of people these days don’t even want to come into the office to work, much less to play. For some employees, though, one of the attractive points of office work is its calm and quiet atmosphere, serving as an orderly counterpoint to the chaos of personal life. If you are one of them, the French ruling may offer inspiration. Next time a Twister board shows up in the break room, think of Monsieur T. and continue silently washing your mug. ♦

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