• U.S.

LAYOFFS FOR LAUGHS

4 minute read
David Van Biema

ELIZABETH HOAK, AN ACCOUNTANT IN New York City, has been downsized twice in the past 3 1/2 years. In each case she was told that her fate did not reflect her performance: nothing personal. Right. “You never quite get over the feeling of unfairness,” she says. “No matter what they call it, you always feel as if you’ve been fired, and fired for no good reason.” Still, Hoak had no choice but to do as millions of Americans have done: she resumed the job hunt. The second time, she says, “it was tough. But it became a little ritual. Each morning I would sit at the table, drink my coffee, read Dilbert. And only then could I start typing my cover letters. “

The Trojan war had Homer. The Spanish-American war had William Randolph Hearst. Every calamity has its bard, and downsizing’s is Scott Adams. True, Patrick Buchanan deserves some credit for recognizing exactly what it means to employees to be expendable gaskets in America’s re-engineering. But Adams, the creator of a sack-shaped, ever threatened corporate loser named Dilbert, was there first. The result is that Dilbert, which already runs in more than 800 newspapers with a readership of some 60 million people, is still the fastest-growing comic strip in the country.

Dilbert is a phlegmatic, mouthless engineer at a nameless firm who, explains Adams with some understatement, “is not fully drinking all of the passion and variety that other people might be.” His sidekick, a dog named Dogbert, is far savvier–and merciless about his owner’s many failings. From its debut in 1989, the cartoon featured some of what Adams calls “cubicle culture”: a natural subject, since he himself occupied Cubicle 4S700R as an applications engineer at Pacific Bell. (He has also been a computer programmer and a commercial lender and was robbed twice at gunpoint during a stint as a bank teller.) But the absurdities of Dilbert’s workday shared space with his hopeless dating life and Dogbert’s periodic attempts to conquer the world.

Then in 1993 Adams printed his E-mail address in the strips. The thousands of responses made it clear that his readers wanted more lampoons of corporate culture and had an endless supply of material to contribute. “There were about 35 million office workers in the United States all having this shared experience, but not knowing that it was shared,” Adams discovered. “All going home and not being able to talk about it because they assumed that it could not be this bad anywhere else.” Dilbert began to chronicle downsizing, hotelling (when a company has fewer cubicles than employees, and every morning is a game of musical chairs) and similar horrors. One strip introduced the Can-o-Matic, “a rest-room stall that randomly fires people by slapping a pink slip on their backs and catapulting them out of the building.” In another, Dilbert’s boss uses humor as a management tool. “Knock, knock,” he says. “Who’s there?” asks a worker. “Not you anymore.”

Some might consider such humor crude; but some have not been downsized. Says Hoak, the New York accountant: “It was cathartic to watch the incompetent boss in the strip and know that the incompetent boss who let me go wasn’t fooling everyone.” Indeed, in a forthcoming book, his seventh, Adams will put forward the “Dilbert Principle” to supplant the outmoded Peter Principle. It is no longer true, he argues, that people are promoted until they reach the level of their incompetence. These days they ascend directly to management without passing through the competent phase, promoted precisely because they fail at everything else.

Adams says roughly 80% of his material comes from readers, which is a good thing, since he cleared out his own cubicle last June. He swears he was not downsized–“I had told my bosses that my energies were with the cartoon, and they just had to ask me and I would go peacefully.” But the Internet, where his Web page, the Dilbert Zone https://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/ dilbert), draws 55,000 visitors a day, was abuzz with concern. Truth to tell, his fans needn’t worry–about him. The comic is earning more than ever, and the sad fact is it will probably have ample grist for a long time to come.

–Reported by Lisa McLaughlin/New York

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