Iron Law at Happy Times

Last time Tailpipe met Brigitte Lang, she was talking about the "circle of very positive people" who came together ten years ago to put out the first issue of Happy Times. The free good-news monthly newspaper -- with its steady diet of cute pets, triumphs over adversity, and accounts of people being kind to one another -- is supposed to offer an antidote to all of the widely publicized evils of the world. In place of Iraq casualties and terrorist atrocities, a piece about Ronald McDonald House chipping in to help the parents of preemie twins. No murder and rapine in Happy Times but a tender story about an old man who loves his cat. And always, some words of advice or wisdom from Lang, the rosy-thinking publisher, in her monthly column, along the lines of: Keep on hugging each other.

But then some former employees of Happy Times, whose office is in Boca Raton, stopped by the 'Pipe's garage to talk about some of the harsh realities of working for Lang's organization. To say the place is buttoned-down would be a vast understatement, they said. "Employees are told right from the start that there is to be no interaction," says Carl Davis, Happy Times' star ad rep for more than two years, who was fired last month, he claims, when he failed to report to work while he was in an intensive-care unit.

No interaction means no collegial cigarette breaks or lunch breaks, no chatting on the job, work-related or otherwise. (Hugs? Maybe a discreet clinch after work, when nobody's looking.) Employees quickly learn not to expect from their bosses any of the inspirational uplift that Happy Times' readers regularly get from the New Age sages who write for the paper.

"Brigitte doesn't talk to you," says Robin Werman, who was fired after taking time off to care for her sick mother. "She's the queen of the castle." But staff are expected to attend company social events. "If there's a company party, you have to show up or bring a doctor's note," Werman says.

The Happy Times enforcers are office manager Amy O'Rourke and Lang herself, the former employees say. "Brigitte is the principal," Werman says. "Her desk is at the back of the office, where she can watch everything. Break a rule and you get this piercing stare."

"There are no happy times at Happy Times," Davis says.

"For a good-feeling newspaper, they make it a very unfriendly place to work," former sales rep Dawn Tucker adds.

Actually, Tailpipe was about to say that, for a good-feeling newspaper, Happy Times sounds a lot like the North Korean army -- though, of course, Happy Times' employees all have the option of quitting.

But here's the worst part. Get on management's bad side and suddenly your pay check starts to shrink. Davis was due for a $1,100 bonus, he says, when he started getting chest pains one day in September. After stays in two hospitals (he gave Tailpipe copies of his medical invoices), O'Rourke fired him. His last paycheck didn't include the bonus, because, Davis was informed, he had abandoned his job. Werman had a similar experience, she says. Not only was she shortchanged on her final paycheck but the company threatened to sue her to retrieve $1,000 in merit pay that she had previously received. "I had my lawyer call them, and I haven't heard any more about it," she says.

The 'Pipe tried to get Lang's side of the story, but she was too busy to talk. Production coordinator Jonathan Lederman, who answered the phone, said he could not speak for the company.

Fortuitously, though, Lang's October column addressed the question of -- what else? -- negativity on the job. Happy Times (which Lang claims has "1/4 million" readers, though she offers no evidence that her circ numbers have been audited by a monitoring company like the Audit Bureau of Circulations) is different from "corporate America" in that it encourages "a positive attitude in the way employees feel about each other and the company." Sometimes, though, individuals with wrong attitudes slip in, she says, including one former employee "who admitted that they would do almost anything in order to make money and maintain a hefty paycheck." You mean, expecting enough remuneration from your job to pay the bills? Really bad attitude, that. Tailpipe has finally figured out why he never got ahead.

This old auto part finally reached O'Rourke, who said: "If you've found someone who's unhappy with Happy Times, have them give me a call. We're all about being happy here. We don't want them having unhappy feelings about us. We would like to have them resolve their unhappiness. That's what Happy Times is all about." Tailpipe passed along the message. Davis said: "You've gotta be kidding me."

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