Smile or be disciplined, mayors in the Philippines warn city workers

The order by mayor Aristotle Aguirre (centre) made failure to smile a violation of public employees' code of conduct. PHOTO: KUYA ARIS AGUIRRE/FACEBOOK

MANILA (NYTIMES) - Soon after taking office last month as mayor of a town in the northern Philippines, Mr Aristotle Aguirre signed an order to deliver one of his campaign promises.

Executive Order No. 002 Series of 2022 did not just require all local government employees to smile when serving the public. It also threatened disciplinary action for those who did not comply.

"Frowning is not allowed in the municipality!" the mayor said in a Facebook post last week announcing his "smile policy".

The order made failure to smile a violation of public employees' code of conduct and said it would be a factor in their performance reviews.

And the people of Mulanay - many of them, anyway - applauded.

"This is a good policy," said Ms Ella May Legson, a university student in Mulanay, a town of about 56,000 in the province of Quezon, southeast of Manila.

She said that she had experienced some frustrations with public employees under the previous mayor, and that she was glad to know she would, potentially, "never see a frowning employee in our municipality again".

It was not immediately clear how municipal workers in the town felt about the new mandate - or even whether the order was legal.

Mr Aguirre said he expected some resistance.

"Definitely there will be some instances when, let's just say, it's not always going to be a perfect day for everyone," he said. But he insisted: "It is not that very hard. A smile is very contagious."

Officials and supervisors the world over, of course, have told workers to be more amiable around those they serve, though they tend to stop short of issuing executive orders.

Smiles are good for business, titans of industry say. There is some evidence that facial expressions can influence mood, and science has suggested that even an artificially induced smile can spur the same brain changes that emerge during spontaneous moments of joy.

In the Covid-19 era, keeping a friendly face has been a herculean task for airline employees dealing with what they call a "mob mentality" in the air.

Flight attendants described a "hellish summer" last year as they experienced a barrage of abuse from customers who refused to wear masks, along with others who violently vented their frustrations at the stress of flying.

As a candidate for mayor, Mr Aguirre, 47, pledged that the smile mandate would be one of his first actions in office. It was his first political campaign; Mr Aguirre said he was his family's "last hope" to beat a rival political clan in the province.

An occupational therapist, he had returned to the Philippines in 2016 after living with his wife and children in New York for 10 years.

"The funny part was I worked in the Bronx - one of the toughest neighbourhoods there," he said. "So I am used to people not smiling."

When Mulanay residents go to the municipal hall, he said, "they encounter a lot of disappointments because the services are so slow, and sometimes the government employees are not that friendly. One of my battle cries during my campaign was to change that behaviour."

Mr Aguirre joined another newly elected Philippine mayor, Mr Alston Kevin Anarna of Silang, a city of 296,000 in the province of Cavite, in dictating smiles all around.

Mr Anarna, 37, another first-time public official, also vowed during his campaign that all civil servants in City Hall would be taught to smile.

"Public servants need to smile," Mr Anarna said, "especially since those who normally go to the municipal hall are people who have nothing, people who have big problems".

He added: "Imagine if those who will greet them are unsmiling and ill-tempered people, then what? But if they are treated nicely, with people who are visibly smiling and willing to help them, they'd feel a little better."

The Silang mayor prohibited frowning among municipal workers - even as he wondered, during a speech, if some of them had been "conceived out of resentment", according to the local news media. Under civil service rules, Mr Anarna said, those who flout his order can be fined or suspended.

He said he had already seen a lot of positive changes.

"They told me that even the garbage collectors are now all smiling," he said. "Even the traffic enforcers who man the roads."

The Silang mayor has not stopped there. He announced on Facebook last month that municipal employees would not be allowed to wear any colours associated with political organisations. That is to ensure that all members of the public feel equally welcome, he said.

In Mulanay, the punishment stipulated by the law was clear.

"If one is to be strict with this policy, anyone who violates it can be suspended for six months, fined the equivalent of their salary for six months, or removed depending on the gravity of the offence," Mr Aguirre said.

But he added: "I don't want to do that. That's too harsh."

He said that "a simple censure or putting the offending employee through sensitivity training so they can serve the public diligently will do".

But is a smile policy sustainable?

Mr Anarna thinks it will be a breeze. "I smile a lot," he said. "I find it easy to smile while doing work."

As for how all this will work during a pandemic, he added: "It may be hard to see people smiling under the face masks, but I guarantee you, you'll see it in the glint of their eyes."

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