Why is the concept of a Chief Happiness Officer even remotely laughable?

There are countless studies pointing to the dollars companies can save if employees are happy. Happy employees stay at their jobs. They are also better performers, meaning they prevent their employers from the costly headaches of recruiting, hiring, training, and onboarding. 

Employee retention not only saves money, it creates the fabric of a strong, enduring company culture. Long-term employees preserve institutional memories and serve as the informal leaders who are crucial to achieving challenging goals.

And yet the idea of companies creating Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) roles is still greeted with ridicule. "Chief Happiness Officer Is the Latest, Creepiest Job in Corporate America," reads the headline in The New Republic. Josh Kovensky writes: 

Having an officer appointed to direct and proliferate the emotion, though, presents some issues. Besides the eerie similarity between "chief happiness officer" and concepts like "ministry of love" and "war on terror," it represents an intrusion into our emotional lives that should not be permitted to any kind of authority figure--be it corporate or governmental--regardless of intention.

This also comes amid a larger, well-documented trend of privacy being sucked out of our day-to-day lives. The New York Times recently published an article on new forms of surveillance in the workplace, some of which are aimed at stoking employee happiness. For example, companies have begun to implement mandatory 15-minute coffee breaks after research showed that increased social interaction boosted productivity. The article also mentions a "digital Big Brother" whose omnipresence manifests itself in gadgets like ID badges that "monitor the communications behavior of individuals--tone of voice, posture, and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long."

Obviously, invasions of employee privacy are creepy. But the smartest entrepreneurs in the space of employee happiness are aware of this. 

In fact, for David Niu, serial entrepreneur and founder of TINYhr, a Seattle-based software company whose mission is employee happiness, the human touch--including but hardly limited to privacy sensitivities--is essential to the work of improving the workplace. You can automate the surveying and processing of employee dislikes (as TINYhr does), but the human touch--listening, empathizing, reacting--is usually required to cause real change, once employees tell you the truth about what's bugging them.

For Niu, the solution was an uncompromising promise of anonymity. If employees could vent without fear of being judged, employers could get closer to assessing and improving employee happiness. So Niu designed TINYpulse, the company's inaugural product, to anonymously ask employees one question at a time, once a week, through an email with a unique link. The piecemeal approach means employers aren't overwhelmed with feedback. Each week brings a subject-specific morsel to act on.

Which brings us to the question: What would be so wrong--or even remotely laughable--about a company having a Chief Happiness Officer, whose job it is to make improvements to the workplace, based on anonymous employee suggestions? 

In recent weeks, the business media has devoted a ton of attention to a book called The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. Why is it an important book? Because it addresses the ever-crucial problem of employee happiness. Authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh--all of whom have been company founders--are attempting to address a classic workplace problem: You're a leader. You want your employees to be happy, for all of the above reasons. 

Yet this seemingly simple goal is hard to achieve, for one obvious reason: Why should employees open up about what makes them happy? The last thing any employee wants to do is complain to a boss who might call him a complainer. "Historically employees feel they have to be very guarded around their manager and the company in general," Yeh told me.

So yes, CHO may sound like a cheesy title. And yes, it's creepy to think of any executive, even in the ostensible pursuit of employee happiness, having access to worker emails or mood-monitoring technology.

But the notion of a leader whose primary purview is employee happiness is one whose time has come. If retention and leadership development matter to your company, then employee happiness should be your top team's top priority.