'Dilbert' gets darker

Back again to skewer workplace injustices, Scott Adams takes aim at those he terms the 'weasels' of our times.

Getting Scott Adams to find the positive side of workplace issues is like trying to get the managers in his Dilbert comic strip to behave intelligently.

But then, Mr. Adams's livelihood depends on cynicism, his own and that of his readers. His latest book, "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel," is full of workplace shenanigans that support the artist's - and Dilbert's - dark view.

Adams, who has an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley, started out in a cubicle himself, first at a bank, then at Pacific Bell. He launched the Dilbert comic strip in 1989, and today it is syndicated in 2,000 newspapers around the world.

He criticizes CEOs, but is one himself - of a food company that bears his name. In a phone interview he is jovial, though adamant that we're all weasels - except Dilbert, of course.

So, how did you develop this rather dim view of the world?

Well, it's something I've been developing all my life. The most recent part, the weasel part, is really the recognition that ... people are more weaselly than at any time in history. Part of that's no surprise, because crime has never paid so well. It used to be that if you mugged somebody all you could get is a wallet and watch. And now you can go to business school, become a CEO, and not only do you get to rip off hundreds of millions of dollars, but you get a dental plan.

Were you working on this book before Enron, Martha Stewart, and WorldCom made headlines?

I started and then Enron hit. I definitely had the weasel germ before most of it hit. I could see the beginning of it. I was seeing stuff like the historians making up the history, and the skating judges cheating, and the movie studios making up their own movie reviews.

And you see this behavior extending to rank-and-file types?

I'll give you the perfect example: I asked a number of my friends this question, "If you found $1,000 and you knew it had been lost by a billionaire and hypothetically he could never find out that you got it, would you keep it?" Almost all of my friends said they'd keep it. And it perfectly illustrates that everybody's good when they're being watched. But as soon as they can get away with it, they're weasels.

Is Dilbert a weasel?

He's a fictional character so he can be the only person who's not. But I think the big breakthrough weasel-wise was when I realized that I was one, too. I think everybody figures, "Boy, other people sure are bad, why can't they be more like me?" But there was some point where I looked at my life, and I realized, you know, I do shade things a little bit. I make myself look a little bit better than I really am in a whole bunch of different ways. None of them criminal, none of them anywhere outside the norm, and none of them even in the worse end of weaselness. But there sure are a lot of them.

What are some of the other changes, besides an increase in deception, that you've seen in the workplace?

During the whole dotcom era, I couldn't get people to complain [about workplace woes], because they thought if they weren't already billionaires, it must be their own fault.... Suddenly it's OK to blame other people again. We're pretty sure it's our management that's bad, or the government, or somebody is making our life miserable again. But that, of course, means good times for "Dilbert."

What benefit do we gain from making fun of common office experiences?

Everybody seems to like company in their misery. The biggest thing that I heard when Dilbert started getting some notoriety, is that people felt that they weren't alone anymore. I think it puts a little bit of a damper on management's otherwise unrestrained ability to do stupid things, because I hear a lot of people say, "My manager asked this question before he rolled out this potential program, he said, 'If I do this, is it going to appear in a Dilbert comic?' " And if everybody says yes, then you rethink it.

Does the cynicism in Dilbert make people feel there's nothing they can do about their problems?

There's a whole book written on that very topic; it's called "The Trouble With Dilbert." Somebody wrote a scholarly book about how Dilbert was actually making the world worse because employees would accept their fate with laughter, rather than rising up against their repressors.

What's your response to that?

I'm trying to imagine some guy coming to his cubicle in the morning and thinking, "I think I'm going to stage a sit-in in the CEO's office. Oh, wait, there's Dilbert - ha, ha, ha - I guess I won't." I'm just not seeing that happen.

A lot of people probably sit around wondering, "How can I get out of this cubicle?" Any advice for them?

Most of the people I worked for were also trying to run a side business from their cubicle. In fact two of the people who I was cubicle neighbors with [at Pacific Bell] also published books. My boss did, and a guy who was on the other side of the cubicle wall. He was in marketing. He ended up murdering a guy and then going to jail and then writing a book after he got out about his prison experience.

Of course, you're not recommending that as a course of action....

Not the murder part. What I'm saying is ... almost everybody was trying to run a second business, and some of those might take off.

During your 16 years in a cubicle, did you wish you had something like Dilbert to read? Is that what it grew out of?

No, not really. It kind of happened organically. I started doing the strip about more general life stuff, and people wrote and said, "Oh, give us more stuff in the office, we like that best."

Was there a dearth of material looking at workplace issues with a jaded eye?

Yeah, I think the only windows on the working world, at least the popular ones, were management-approved ones, you know, like management or financial magazines. And no employee is going to give a real opinion to a reporter, because it's the end of your job.

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