Comic Strip Tease

A balding, barrel-chested manager enters a conference room and announces, "I've got an idea!" His employees simultaneously think: "We're doomed." Prelude to a recent Commerce Department meeting, perhaps? Or a meeting at the EPA? Or the IRS? None of the above: It's the opening panel of a Dilbert comic strip. But any federal employee who has survived a management fad can discern apocalyptic hoofbeats behind an idea-bearing manager. So an entirely believable answer would have been all of the above, which helps explain why Dilbert is so popular with government workers. And why managers can learn a thing or two from the comic strip.

Dilbert captures the '90s workplace Zeitgeist-the struggle for sanity amidst mission statements, pseudo-empowerment schemes, perpetual reorganizations and seemingly random buzzwords. Dilbert and his cubicle-dwelling co-workers play their part in this theater of the absurd, voicing the daily frustrations of the multitudes.

If thumbtacks are scarce in federal supply cabinets, it's because they've been used up by employees posting Dilbert comics on cubicle walls and bulletin boards.

"In my office, we all tend to think [Dilbert creator Scott Adams] really worked at the IRS," says Terry Weaver, an IRS acquisitions manager in Falls Church, Va. "It feels like the events in the strip happened right here." For example, like Dilbert characters, "we seem to spend more time trying to figure out time-keeping codes for our work than doing something productive," Weaver says.

Dilbert's company also undergoes that familiar federal exercise-reorganization. To fit the occasion, Dilbert's boss even introduces a new dress code for his employees: chess pawn costumes. The symbolism rings true for many federal workers. One General Services Administration employee, who prefers to remain anonymous, was recently reassigned to a different work group for the fourth time in as many years. As if in a Dilbert comic, he says, "Everyone stands up, rotates and sits back down." Work-wise, he adds, "essentially we're doing the same thing."

Scott Whitcher, a business manager at Fort Meade in Laurel, Md., and a 33-year federal government veteran, says he's "seen everything Adams puts in there at one time or another." How does the absurdity of his workplace compare to that of Dilbert's, which enlists sadistic little dogs as consultants and staffs its accounting department with trolls? "It's about equal," Whitcher says.

In one series of Dilbert strips, Dilbert's co-worker Wally realizes he can make more money if he's fired. In a bid for the golden handshake, he starts showing up for work in his underwear. It reminded Shelley Matsuba of her workplace, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in Chantilly, Va. Adams "just makes it more ludicrous," Matsuba says, "but you can see [co-workers] in his characters."

Laughs@agencies.gov

Adams' ideas spring from his 17 years in the corporate trenches. But he also finds inspiration in the hundreds of e-mail messages he receives daily. Do some have ".gov" return addresses? Government employees "aren't allowed to use their e-mail for personal purposes," Adams says. "So, for the record, no, I've never gotten a single e-mail from any government employee. Because that would be wrong."

And off the record? "Well, let's just say, if you see similarities in the strip, they're not from my own experience," he says. Adams says his e-mail folder bulges with "mostly bad boss stories. . . . They usually have to do with bosses who don't understand the whole time-space dimension and who think if two people can do it in two days, then one person should be able to do it in one day." Fans also frequently complain about office recognition systems. "People work 60 hours a week for two years, and their reward turns out to be a Snickers candy bar that says, 'Congratulations, you're a valuable team member,'" Adams says.

In March, Adams found out just how popular Dilbert is among federal employees. Almost a thousand people, most of them government workers, spilled out of an auditorium in the Washington Convention Center during Adams' speech at the FOSE information technology expo. One Agriculture Department fan even sneaked in through a back entrance to ask Adams for an autograph.

Adams ended his speech with a comics primer. He explained how cartoonists employ several dimensions of humor. One dimension is the bizarre, which Adams says he achieves by juxtaposing two things that don't belong together. His example: a comic strip panel showing a boss telling the truth. Judging from the sustained laughter in the auditorium, largely filled with managers, the panel had also touched on another dimension of humor: the spark of recognition.

An invitation-only book signing following Adams' speech drew several dozen managers and executives. Matsuba was also there. She asked Adams to autograph two copies of The Dilbert Principle, his best-selling 1996 business book. One copy belonged to her boss, who she says cuts out Dilbert comic strips from the newspaper and posts them on his door. She asked Adams to dedicate her boss's book with the words: "Thanks for the inspiration."

Mirror, Mirror on the (Cubicle) Wall

"We rarely recognize our own idiocies, yet we can clearly identify the idiocies of others," Adams writes in The Dilbert Principle. "Everyone who is a manager has a manager," Adams elaborates. "The beauty of [the Dilbert strip] is that everyone thinks it's their boss; they don't think it's [about] them." Adams says employees frequently tell him, "I had a comic up on my cubicle that makes fun of my boss. It was exactly what he does, and he came by, read it, laughed and said, 'I've heard of people who do that.' "

"As a manager, I'm sure I'm not one of the bosses he portrays," the IRS' Weaver laughs. "The next up the chain is the one that's guilty, not you." But employees have a way of bursting that illusion. At the IRS, they take the unsubtle approach of writing managers' names next to the appropriate comic strip characters before publicly posting the strips. "The executives have seen enough strips with their names on them that they know how we feel," Weaver says.

That message has not sunk in everywhere. "My direct supervisor can relate very well" to the Dilbert strips, says the anonymous GSA employee. But the jokes apply more to his higher-level managers, he says, who might find the strips too much "like looking in the mirror."

Managers' reactions vary. The GSA employee says he once posted a collection of Dilbert cartoons on the office bulletin board, but "they disappeared." His conclusion: "I think we were censored." But in a different department at GSA, a manager good-naturedly accepted a framed Dilbert comic signed by his staff.

"I'm a boss and I love [the strip]," says Jerome Smith, dean of the Information Resource Management College at Fort McNair in Washington. "It gives us all some food for thought," agrees a Pentagon project manager who spoke on condition of anonymity. Does he ever see himself in the comic strip? "If I'm honest, probably so." The EPA's acting Information Resources Management director, Paul Wohlleben, admits he's found himself in situations similar to "about a third" of Dilbert strips. But he chooses not to elaborate on which role he's played.

In some cases, the strips even serve as a catalyst for positive change. "It puts you in your place," Whitcher says. "I've made some modifications because of what I've seen in the strips. I see how the other half lives."

The Dilbert Future

Dilbert sympathizers can glimpse their fate in a new book called The Dilbert Future. Following trends to their logical conclusions, Adams considers cost-cutting mania, for example, and sees "head cubicles" in workers' futures. Today's cubicles still have "plenty of arm room, which is largely wasted," he says. The solution: borrowing a design concept from the hair dressing salon, engineers will build computers into chair bases and attach hoods that workers can pull down over their heads. At the end of the day, the cubicles can be neatly stacked in a corner.

Adams also sees a bifurcating workplace: "It will become like the [National Basketball Association]," he says, "which has a few superstars with a huge amount of power and money, a few unimportant executives in the middle, and lots of people selling peanuts and cleaning sweat off the court."

Is Adams worried about running out of comic strip ideas? "It could only happen if everything in [the workplace] stopped being bad . . . so I think it's a pretty low risk." Managers, the gauntlet has been thrown.

Luba Vangelova is a Washington-area freelance writer.

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