The Common Good
January-February 1997

The Dilbertization of America

by Jill Carroll Lafferty | January-February 1997

Scott Adams unites the workers of the world.

At times I'm quite sure I'm the only former Sojourners intern now doing something as unradical as participating in her company's employee stock purchase plan. I'm sure the rest of my old housemates, and those who came before and after me, are fulfilled through vocations that promote faith and social justice—growing vegetables on organic farms, saving lives in women's shelters, and lobbying Congress to get rid of certain American schools that train Latin American hulks to torture their country's civilians.

My life is more like a Dilbert cartoon.

Actually, I work for a newspaper, a business described loftily in journalism school as the Fourth Estate. (Some college marketing guy came up with that myth to convince young idealistic students to spend thousands of dollars on j-school for a degree that qualifies them to work 80 hours a week for a pittance. If you don't believe me, read the "Historical Uses of Market Surveys" section in The Dilbert Principle, and you'll learn how sneaky those marketing-types are.)

The newspaper that employs me doesn't even run the Dilbert comic strip. I have to read the competition to get my daily Dilbert dose, which requires stealing the competition from the publisher's office. (They didn't have a class on this in journalism school. Fortunately, I picked up the skill in the Sojourners magazine office, where "thou shalt not steal" went out the window when Christianity Today came in the mail.)

But when stealing the competition fails, or in the rare case that the day's strip doesn't exactly mirror my work situation, I and the rest of the underlings of corporate America have The Dilbert Principle and a plethora of other well-marketed Dilbert products, including the recently released Still Pumped From Using the Mouse (HarperBusiness, 1996), by creator Scott Adams.

FOR THOSE SO lucky as to not be initiated into the corporate culture, Dilbert is the cartoon character described by his own marketers as the "poster boy" of corporate America. Adams' book is full of things you need to know should you ever join the corporate legions, like Great Lies of Management, Pretending to Work, Team-Building Exercises, and something called ISO 9000. I don't know what ISO 9000 is, and neither does Adams, but if I'm ever confronted with it, I now know to run.

One of my companion undervalued co-workers has been asking me how I would write about a comic strip for a Christian publication. Well, my two favorite Dilbert strips have spiritual themes: 1) If your name is printed on a three-ring binder, you lose your soul, and 2) Morality only matters for those who aren't already in hell.

Dilbert provides a little comfort to those of us surrounded by corporate incompetency, better known as management. Dilbert is someone with whom we subordinates can identify. We are not alone. What makes the book even better than the comic strip is that it is full of e-mail messages to Adams that all begin like this: "This is a true story." And we readers all know it's a true story because we've all been there, as a "team member," a "project leader," isolated in the cubicles, and receiving pins with the corporate logo when what we really wanted was a raise.

And what comforts us the most is The Dilbert Principle itself: The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage—management.

Now I don't feel so bad about still being entry-level.

Review of The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions. By Scott Adams. HarperBusiness, 1996.

JILL CARROLL LAFFERTY, a former Sojourners intern, is living and working as a journalist in Ottumwa, Iowa.

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