When Team Building Gets Toxic: How a Case From France Illustrates the Need for Rethinking “Fun” and What It Means On Teams

Recently, a court in France ruled that an employee couldn’t be fired for “not being fun”– refusing to take part in team building activities that he felt uncomfortable with. We look at the case and what it says about teams, team building, and the current culture of “fun”.  

A recent court ruling out of France has made a small stir in the recent news headlines. It concerns a man who was fired in 2015 for essentially refusing to participate in toxic team building activities with his coworkers (his company deemed this “professional incompetence”).

Normally we wouldn’t comment on a court case, especially one out in France. However, the nature of the case presents a perfect opportunity to talk about what team building could be, what it definitely shouldn’t be, and what the current culture of “fun with coworkers” says about work culture in general.

It’s also an opportunity to think about alternatives. As we shall see, the case perfectly illustrates when team building becomes toxic–when it actually works to undermine the very goals of team unity and strengthening relationships that it’s trying to achieve. 

So come join us on this rare occasion when a story about team building becomes international news. We’ll investigate what happens when team building breaks bad, and what teams definitely should not do when it comes to having fun together. 

Sorry, but you’re just not fun enough 

The case in France involves an employee who was fired in 2015 from a Paris-based consulting firm. While the firm stated the reasons for his termination as being “professional incompetence”, the employee accused the company for firiring him for not participating in social work events that he felt uncomfortable with. In other words, he was fired for not being fun enough.

According to the employee, these social events included “excessive drinking, bullying and promiscuity.” He also claimed that there were some events in which participants were forced to share a bed with other colleagues. All of this made the employee feel uncomfortable about participating in this type of “culture of fun”.

In the end, the judge ruled in favor of the employee, stating that employees in France have a right to express their freedom of speech by not participating in social events at work, and employers can’t terminate employees for simply not being fun enough.

Being a team building company trying to promote more inclusive, respectful and encouraging team environments and activities that can support them, this story definitely raised our interest. And we feel that there are quite a few lessons that teams can learn from this. 

Cultures of fun

While this case is a pretty extreme example, it does represent a certain type of culture that sometimes developed around”fun” and socialization–namely that if you’re not having fun when everyone else is, or not going along with the rest of the team, then something is “wrong with you”.

This type of thinking is peer pressure at its worst, and it is a form of emotional bullying–which should never be anywhere near the word “team.” What stands out in the case is not the activities themselves, but that the employee felt both uncomfortable with them and forced to participate in them.

Fun should be just that–fun. And if you’re talking about a group, then a fun event should be fun for everyone involved, not just the people who like drinking, partying or playing around. 

But there are milder forms of this type of thinking, too. Forcing people to socialize in certain ways and at certain times, when maybe they aren’t in the mood or not comfortable with large groups, is another form of this. Punishing people for not “looking happy” or “smiling enough” is yet another common example.

We all have certain codes, standards, and social pressures to follow, especially at work. But being too rigid and forcing someone to act in a certain way can be even worse, especially when it compromises someone’s mental or emotional security. This is what we mean when we talk about the importance of psychological safety.

Understanding that people and coworkers are different is part of the social contract, too. And creating a space where everyone can participate and feel included so that they can do their job is what working with others should be all about.

Toxic team building 

All this comes into focus even more when team building is involved. With team building, the goal is to have fun, but as a team. And so finding activities that the whole team can enjoy, rather than just a certain group within the team, becomes especially important.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that some teams approach team building. Either because in the past this is the way things have been, or because they simply don’t know of other alternatives, some teams choose activities that are not inclusive, or that force team members into uncomfortable situations.

This is what we will call “toxic team building”. It’s when the goals of team building (strengthening relationships, communication and teamwork) become undermined, or even canceled out completely, by the activity itself and the degree to which it is forced on team members.

When toxic team building occurs, teams don’t get closer and they don7t develop into a stronger, more cohesive unit. In fact, just the opposite takes place. Team members feel resentful, pressured, and even emotionally abused.

The goals of team building

This is a good place to talk about what distinguishes team building and toxic team building. Because some could argue that all team building is “forced” in some way, in the sense that it is often made a part of one’s work to join these activities, or it becomes an expectation to participate. 

Obviously, allowing team members to opt out if they aren’t in the mood or not feeling up to it for whatever reason is one answer to this. But another thing that all teams can do to make team building more fulfilling and something that team members want to participate in is to make sure that the goals of the activity are in line with your team’s needs and personality. 

Toxic team building in some ways emerges from the lack of clear, meaningful goals for team building activities. As a result, the activity itself becomes the goal (let’s party together), rather than the means to some greater end (let’s party together so that we can grow closer as a team). 

Or, the activity becomes divorced from what the team actually wants or needs (a short activity during the day that everyone can participate in rather than a longer event at night where only some will have fun).  

This is a lesson that all teams can and should learn. Being more intentional about your team building events and the goals behind them can go a long way in reducing toxicity and ensuring that your team actually benefits and grows stronger from these experiences (rather than growing more resentful).

What toxic team building is (and what teams shouldn’t do when planning events)

So now let’s summarize some of the lessons we’ve learned from this case in France.The following list doubles as an explainer for what toxic team building is and what your team should avoid if it wants to plan meaningful team building events.

1. Forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do   

This should be a no-brainer. Don’t make employees do things that they don’t want to do. Instead, find activities that are inclusive, and that allow all team members to have fun. But also maybe leave the option open for opting out. Team members may have other things going on in their work or personal lives. 

And if you do plan activities that are fun and enjoyable for everyone, eventually team members will all join because they want to and not because they have to. 

2. Centering team building on activities that not everyone enjoys

Don’t continue to plan events that no one actually likes. Find out which activities team members have enjoyed in the past and try to plan more of those. Or if you are looking for a new event, ask around for opinions from team members. If there is an event that you have been doing for a while that not everyone likes, make it optional or an unofficial social gathering.

3. Making people feel emotionally or physically uncomfortable

Give team members the benefit of the doubt when they say that something makes them uncomfortable. Not everyone’s idea of fun or enjoyment is the same. Remember that the goal is a united, strong team–not a team where everyone has the same opinions and feelings about everything. Making people feel uncomfortable undermines the goals of team building and creates a toxic environment for everyone.

4. Separating fun from the people participating in it

This goes back to the necessity of having goals for team building. When you hold up “fun” as the end, rather than the means, you forget about the actual people involved. Fun for the sake of fun is, in reality, not always that fun. Fun is about relationships and enjoying spending time with people that are around you–in this case, your team. So switch the thinking when it comes to planning team building  from “having fun” to “having fun together as a team”.  

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