Employee retention gurus rattle on about the fun stuff managers can encourage to make people happy they work for you — and keep them from going down the road to another employer.

But can there be such a thing as too much fun? According to a new study from researchers at three large U.S. universities, yes.

The study was specific to the hospitality industry, but has implications for other workplaces, too. The researchers — from Penn State, Ohio State and Loyola in Baltimore — interviewed 195 employees of a national restaurant chain, focusing on the effect of “manager support for fun.” (Fun includes things like holiday parties and picnics, company-sponsored athletic teams, public celebrations of work achievements, and recognition of such personal milestones as birthdays and weddings.)

The researchers asked employees to rate how strongly (or not) they agreed with statements like “My managers care about employees having fun on the job” and “My managers try to make working here fun.”

Surprising results
The results? They may surprise you. The study found unequivocally that:

  • Manager support for fun does reduce turnover among employees of all ages, especially younger ones, but also
  • Manager support for fun correlates with lower productivity among all employees of all ages.

So, bearing #1 in mind, should you as a manager strive to make your workplace fun, so as to retain your people and avoid — as much as possible — having to recruit, train and integrate newbies into your team? Or, with #2 uppermost, should you hold the “fun” to a minimum in order to keep performance up?

The middle way
As with so many things when it comes to managing people, the right answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Here’s how one of the authors of the study, Penn State assistant professor Michael Tews, put it: “The question becomes, is the productivity loss associated with manager support for fun worth the significant reduction in employee turnover? … The take-home message is that fun can work, but it’s not a panacea. You really have to think about what outcome you are trying to achieve, and you also have to consider the characteristics of your workers.”

For another way of looking at it, consider the wisdom of the Beach Boys in a 1964 hit song. Yes, Mr. and Ms. Manager, by all means promote “Fun, Fun, Fun,” but at appropriate times also be ready to “take the T-Bird away.”

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