Bringing your best self to work- at summer camp!

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A French court just ruled that a man who was fired by a Paris-based consulting firm was wrongly dismissed for his refusal to take part in after-hours social events sponsored by his employer. The headline in the Washington Post read, “French man wins the right to not be fun at work.” As a summer camp director, whose job is to make sure everyone is having fun, I took note. Did I need to worry about some terminated camp counselor seeking relief for not being “fun” enough?

Granted, the French case centered on happy hours and weekend retreats that promoted alcohol abuse and bed swapping, but it got me thinking about the unique demands of a job that doesn’t allow one to go home at the end of the day. Being a camp counselor at a residential camp is a sort of combination of being cast on Survivor and Big Brother, simultaneously. You work together, you live together, you eat together, and, unless you have family nearby or a special friend that visits, you take time off together. I suspect organizational psychologists might call it a recipe for disaster! Others might call it an incredible opportunity to build corporate culture.

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In her first job out of college our daughter worked for a company whose owner spend lavishly on these after-hours events, a day on his watercraft (too small to be a yacht, too large to be a boat), a weekend retreat with no real agenda, and a Christmas party at a swanky downtown restaurant that included an open bar, shots, and a tasting menu. No one wanted or asked for these events, and, presumably, the boss thought he was doing everyone a favor with these grand gestures. As one of her colleagues remarked after a “Taco Tuesday” lunch hour, “You know, I do like tacos, but I’d like health insurance even more.” I am not sure the boss was achieving his desired effect.

Camps don’t need to devise employee events, they happen organically. Invariably, there are those who thrive on them, always leading the song, or skit. There are also those who immediately find the back row when it’s time to do a “trust fall” or play charades. The job of camp counselor has been the victim of popular culture portrayal for years. The stereotypes abound, (See Meatballs, or Wet Hot American Summer.) but today’s camp counselor is just as likely to be studying finance as they are physical education. They become adept at setting boundaries, navigating conflict, setting goals, and learning how to give and accept feedback. If I am not wrong, I think these are just the type of proficiencies that most employers are looking for!

Camps don’t invite counselors to bring their whole selves to work, but by necessity, they do. Yes, it can get messy, and directors and administrators spend a fair amount of time working with staff on their work relationships and managing behavior and expectations. What counselors learn is invaluable and translates to so many life and work experiences. A well functioning camp differs from much of popular corporate culture. Staff learn there needn’t be a contradiction between honoring the community and nourishing the individual. Camp counselors learn that there’s no room (or need) at Camp to bring your whole self to work if that whole self can’t play well with others.

Campers and staff tell us, year after year, that at Camp they have developed, maintained, and shared a version of their best selves. A well run camp organization becomes both the creator and the beneficiary of this. No one is forced to have fun they don’t want to have. Maybe I don’t need to fear that lawsuit after all.

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