As Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons put it, "The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management." Of course, this creates maximum damage, as their idiocy permeates corporate life. "It seems as if we've turned nature's rules upside down," Adams writes. "We systematically identify and promote people who have the least skills."
Are things really that bad in real life? Are we all as doomed as Dilbert, destined to pass out from exhaustion from working in air-conditioned sweatshops? Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, seems to admit as much when he says downsizing, wage stagnation and a shortsighted corporate efficiency mania have drastically changed the work environment to the detriment of the worker. "It has certainly raised questions of cynicism, loyalty, perceived sense of worth and career aspirations," he says, neatly summarizing the traumas at Dilbert's unnamed yet universal employer.
While boss-hating is an honored tradition, in the '90s there's more reason for it than ever. "With downsizing and cost containment, the pressure on bosses has increased in remarkable ways, and instead of kicking the dog, they often kick the subordinate -- and those people often kick their subordinates," says Harvey Hornstein, a psychologist and author of "Brutal Bosses." No wonder some of the most popular "Dilbert" strips are the ones where the superior torments his underlings, like the one where he offers to raise an employee appraisal if the worker eats a bug. ("It's way more motivational if I pick the bug," says the boss.) It's not hard, however, to find real-life tales that top the transgressions in the comic strip. There's even a Web site devoted to such horror stories -- www.myboss.com.
"In the '50s and '60s, management heretics espoused that participation, egalitarianism and involvement would not just make people happier, but improve the bottom line," says Art Kleiner, author of "The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change." Sounds great, but then the Dilbert Principle kicked in, and the programs came under the control of idiots. Mishandled and forced upon workers, these schemes now succeed only in making workers more cynical -- and less productive. Typical is the middle manager at a financial-services firm, living under the boot of one of the ubiquitous total-quality programs: "Paying attention to customers and quality is what I do every day," he says, "but now I have to hang up signs and post measurements."
Technology does enhance the workplace: it boosts productivity, it distributes all-important information around the company, it enables workers to play solitaire without shuffling cards. It also makes bosses look even more clueless than usual, like the executive at a government regulatory agency whose answer to every technological dilemma is "get a bigger disk drive." For some reason, though, the bosses wind up with the snazziest computers, which gather dust while underlings struggle with wheezing old boxes that can't run Windows 95.
Too Much Time at Work
Ever since Apple's Macintosh development team in the mid-1980s wore T shirts proclaiming 90 IN A WEEK AND LOVING IT! high-tech companies have figured out it's good business to coax triple-time work out of single-salary employees, and the practice seems to have spread to other sectors of the workplace. But Americans don't love spending all their time at work-40 percent of NEWSWEEK'S Poll respondents think their employers ask too much of them. Dilbert's boss, for instance, thinks nothing of drawing a time line for a project that has the hapless engineer designing "a client-server architecture for our worldwide operations" -- in six minutes.
An indication of how far this has gone is one of the latest corporate trends: "home-at-work." The idea is that since employees are being asked to spend almost all their waking hours at the office, the least the company can do is let them entertain themselves with the computer. So the company permits them to do banking, personal e-mail and even recreational Net-surfing at their workstations. Meanwhile, the main contact these drones have with their families is by viewing snapshots of their kids on the World Wide Web.
In Dilbert's company, it's done by Dogbert's "can-o-matic," a device disguised as a toilet that "randomly fires people by slapping a pink slip on their backs and catapulting them out of the building." But whether it's done to lower costs, impress Wall Street and get rid of that chimerical deadwood, downsizing is the defining reality of the workplace today. If everybody weren't so worried about being Dogberted, the absurdities of the workplace would be infinitely more tolerable -- and the "Dilbert" strip would be shorn of its sharpest edge.
Surprisingly, Scott Adams himself thinks that downsizing does make the workplace more efficient -- fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations. What gives Adams grist for the "Dilbert" mill is the way managers mishandle downsizing, not only in the often cruel manner in which the news is broken, but in its sometimes counterproductive effects. Nynex, for instance, has shed thousands of employees since 1990. Union rules protect senior workers, "but our younger employees were the ones who had taken more time to educate themselves," says a remaining technician. "We have actually gotten rid of our best people." This practice -- of getting rid of the brightest workers -- happens so often that it has its own term: brightsizing.
Corporate Double Talk
Why don't managers say what they really mean? Because then you'd know. "My boss actually said to me, 'Let's bubble back up to the surface and smell the numbers'," marvels Toph Whitmore, an analyst at a software firm in Bellevue , Wash. "I had no idea what it meant."
At worst, business communication is purposely misleading. "My company put out a memo that told us to go home over the July Fourth weekend and relax," says an engineer at a Silicon Valley firm. In fact, the firm was mandating the workers to use vacation days for the long weekend-something that the employees understood immediately. All this, of course, leads to cynicism and resentment. Sometimes it's little things that put workers over the edge -- like the company that declared that engineers using the whiteboard would be limited to two marker colors. Other times it's bigger things, like seeing workers blown away like props on the "Twister" set. As a result, the American workplace nods in agreement at the "Dilbert" cartoon where the boss admits that he was mistaken when he previously claimed that "employees are our most valuable asset." Actually, he explains, they're ninth. Eighth place? "Carbon paper," says the boss.
Is there any hope that the workplace can improve? A number of consultants think so, and cite the strip itself as an antidote to corporate mindlessness. Adams himself has hopes that his comic strip may actually change the problems that he satirizes. "Somebody told me that their company now has a Dilbertization committee," he says. "The idea is to find things their company does that could potentially be fodder for a 'Dilbert' cartoon strip, and change it. This is repeating itself in other companies. It almost seems like there are fewer absurdities happening."
There's a problem with that theory, though. In order for the strip to have those effects, the bosses first have to Get It. According to the Dilbert Principle, this will happen around the same time that cubicles learn to fly. Consider the small but telling event that occurred recently at a Midwestern company. A manager went over to a worker's desk and noticed a "Dilbert" posted on the wall. In the strip, the boss was complaining that a report was too readable. Could Dilbert muddy up the language a bit? "Oh," the manager chuckled, "isn't that the truth?" Then she changed the subject -- after reviewing a document for the seventh time, she wanted the worker to redo it yet again.