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Is it really that bad?
Abuse in the Workplace (Parts 1-4)

© Douglas E. Welch 1997

I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to address the Dilbert Factor when discussing computer careers. Dilbert is the comic creation of cartoonist Scott Adams. His wit and wisdom is legend in most offices, especially among those people I like to call "The Cubicle Corp." I remember these people fondly although I finally made my own escape from this fabric wall fantasy world. They are the people that keep most companies operating, often in spite of those around, or above, them.

As entertaining as Dilbert is, though, I feel I need to address the real issues that Mr. Adams and his geeky creations are seeking to illuminate. While it is fun to laugh, I think we can also learn a bit about our companies, our bosses, our co-workers and ourselves.


Is it really that bad?

As with all comedy, Dilbert is funny because it is extreme. Were there truly a company that had all the problems of Dilbert's, it would have gone out of business long ago. This is not to say that the topics aren't ripped from today's employee handbooks. Dilbert is funny because we all relate to what is going on in his world. We have all probably fell victim to one or two of the absurdities shown in the comic.

Sometimes when we are in the throes of "one of those days," we think that life is a Dilbert world. Everything is absurdity and there is nothing we can do about it. This is, of course, an exaggeration. We all need to maintain a little perspective about our jobs, as hard as that may be sometimes. We need to think back on the good things that have happened, those projects that have been successful, and then try and find a way to fix the current problem. It certainly won't be easy, but neither will it be the Sisphysian* task that Dilbert faces every day.

Taking Action

One major trait that separates us from Dilbert and friends is our reaction to adversity. Most of the comic characters are so jaded and cynical that, rather than work, they devise a myriad of ways to please the boss without actually performing any useful function.

Not only that, they make no effort to actually get out of the environment they are in. No one is looking for a new job. No one is exploring new possibilities. I personally hope that none of you are in that position. If so, GET OUT NOW! There is little so damaging to your self-esteem and personal life than a job that is sucking the life out of you. Laugh at Dilbert all you want, but make sure you don't become him.

Next Week: Bosses and their habits.

*Sysiphus - a character from Greek Mythology that spent his days pushing a huge boulder to the top of a large hill each day, only to see it roll to the bottom each night.

Bosses and their habits

This week we explore the Dilbert world by looking at bosses and how they are perceived by their employees. Dilbert's "pointy-haired" boss seems the epitome of uncaring, unwilling and unknowing manager. When he isn't actively thwarting the work of his employees, he is unknowingly undermining their moral and will to perform. Once again, Scott Adams shows the extreme in order to illuminate and entertain. The reality is somewhere between the "pointy-haired" boss and the ideal.

What is he/she thinking?

One of the most common boss/employee problems is seemingly arbitrary behavior on the part of the boss. Everyone seems to understand the proper solution to a problem but the boss makes a decision that is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. While you might think the boss is just clueless, there are probably larger forces at work here. Namely, your boss' boss. We might not like to believe it, but our managers have solutions dictated to them from above, just as they sometimes do to their employees. In fact, there is usually a correlation between the two events.

Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that our manager is totally in control of his or her own destiny. In reality, they are still someone's employee even though they are at a higher level. The major problem with the "clueless" boss is not ignorance but their failure to communicate reality to their employees. Were they to explain to their employees how decisions were being made, the blame would fall less on them and more on those above them, where it belongs.

The Blamer

This is not to say, though, that all problems come from above. Some managers are just "clueless" and refuse to admit it. They may blame problems on their superiors dictates even when it is they, themselves who made the erroneous decision. These bosses are harder to detect, but they come with a unique self-destruct mechanism. As soon as they make enough bone-head decisions, they are either moved up or out. While you might think they can cause bigger problems if they are in a higher level position, the truth is that they can also be watched more closely by the higher-ups to which they report. Obviously, moving them out is the best possible solution because then they become someone else's problem.

The King Midas

Often, bosses will come to the conclusion that they have to touch everything in order for it to be of any worth. They have to rewrite every report, check every computer connection, review every memo, etc. What they are really telling their employees is that they are not trusted. In some cases, employees can prove they are trustworthy, but in others, the manager will never delegate tasks beyond the most mundane. Again, though, a self-destruct mechanism is at work here. When everything in a department has to be funneled through one manager there are inevitable delays and missed deadlines. Enough of these and the manager will quickly learn that they will have to delegate or depart. Business waits for no one, despite how much of a Midas touch they think they might have.

Next Week: Let's get serious

Let's get serious

You might not think that a business discussion using Dilbert would have a serious side but given today's work environment, I want to discuss the Abusive Boss. While we may dislike the decisions our managers make and even detest our manager as a person, most of us are free from this, the worst possible, of all bosses.

What is considered abuse?

As much as Dilbert's co-workers detest their "pointy-haired" boss, you have never seem him shout obscenities at them. You have never seen him striking someone and you have never really seen any of them in fear for their safety. Abusive bosses can and do use all of these tactics, to the detriment of all those around them.

On-the-job abuse can range from shouting to physical intimidation to even physical violence if someone is out of control. While there has been a dramatic and important increase in the understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace, those managers that use other methods of intimidation are just as dangerous.

Everyone has to make their own personal judgment about what they consider office abuse. To some, a manager who yells at people, in front of other employees might be considered abusive. Others might place their limit at the use of obscenities and insults. Still others might consider anything short of assault as permissible in the workplace.

Whatever your limits, it is important to recognize an abusive boss and begin working on a solution. You may notice this behavior right away when joining a company or department, while other employees may have just resigned themselves to it. Don't allow yourself to become complacent, though. You will need to make a decision regarding your job quickly. You do not want to become like the others and spend your career in fear of an abusive manager.

What to do?

It is important to confront an abusive manager at the first instance of this behavior. I have been in the position where I have had to walk away from someone who was screaming at me because that was the only way to end the explosion. I simply stated, "When you have calmed down, we can talk." Later, I explained to them that they had overstepped their limits with me and we came to an agreement about behavior.

Obviously, I could have been fired on the spot, but I made the decision that if I had to work with this person under those circumstances, I would probably have quit on my own. We all have to be willing to place limits on abusive behavior, even if it means leaving a job. No job is worth being abused.

My experiences with office abuse have been fairly mild but I have had acquaintances relate stories to me that would have sent me to the police. If a manager ever threatens your safety or actually assaults you, do not hesitate to call in the authorities. It might just prevent you from being injured or worse. Employers are purchasing your time and your intelligence when they hire you. They do not purchase your rights or your safety.

Next Week: Coping with the smaller problems.

Coping and Growing

While Dilbert's managers might seem to come from a living hell on earth, most real world managers are not that bad. It may seem they are on any given day, but when we look at the overall picture, they are only as bad as we let them be. There are various strategies for coping with some problem bosses, but the final choice is always yours. If a manager is truly annoying, then you might have to make the decision to leave or move to another department. While it might seem frightening, it is more frightening to spend your career with someone you dislike.

Giving them what they want

In most cases, managers have a very clear idea what they want from their employees. They want these forms, or those results or this attitude. Whether their ideas are valid or not is a moot point. If you want to successfully work for this manager, you will need to bend to their rules and desires.

This is not to say that you can't control your own personal world. Perhaps you want to keep records in a different way than your manager. You can do just this, but make sure you give your manager the information they want, in the form they want it. While it might seem like more work, in reality, you will probably be more effective in your job and your manager will still be happy.

We all have to make small adjustments to fit into our managers world and we all need to be flexible enough to make them. This is not to say that we shouldn't try to make changes for the better. We may just have to couch them in small, easily digestible bites for our managers.

Influencing your manager

Once you have a clear idea about what your manager wants and their vision of the future, you can begin making suggestions for change. Make sure you have a clear understanding of your manager's goals and usual working habits. Proposing something that is totally outside your managers ken will nearly always result in them dismissing the idea out of hand.

Propose many small changes, over time, rather than one grand change, all at once. Smaller changes are easier for most people to adapt to and they create less anxiety among both management and staff. Realize that it might take a long time for the department to change. Movement is the goal, not revolution.

Recognizing futility

In the movie, WarGames, the climax of the film is dependent on the large computer understanding the concept of futility. Unfortunately, some employees still do not realize that trying to encourage change in some areas is, indeed, futile. We should all try our best at our jobs, but there comes a time in every career when we begin to think, "I have done all the good here I can do." This can be a frightening experience because it upsets our comfortable lives. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we need sometimes. We need something to break us out of our complacency and allow us to jump to the next level of our lives. Futility doesn't mean we have failed, it means we have grown.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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