The force of Dilbert

The king of the office cubicles has a target-rich environment for his mocking wit. Careful what you say and where you say it. His creative team is listening.

By Christina Rexrode
Published May 8, 2007

ORLANDO - Incompetence springs eternal. And that's a good thing for Scott Adams, the man behind the celebrated Dilbert comic strip. As long as there are inane managers and lazy colleagues in this workplace world of cubicles, he'll never run short of ideas.

Adams, who turns 50 next month, was in Orlando on Monday to speak at a convention for WorldatWork, an organization for human resources professionals.

Dilbert debuted in 1989, when downsizing was the major concern among U.S. workers, Adams said. Now? Judging by the e-mail he gets, he thinks workers are happier than they were in the early '90s, but less happy than they were in their cubicles during the dot-com heyday.

"That said, " Adams noted dryly during an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, "there's a limit to how happy you can be when you're working in a fabric-covered box."

Judging by his readers' responses, Adams said there are two major watercooler topics among U.S. workers right now: Offshoring "Everybody's afraid their job will go to India" and Sarbanes-Oxley, the law passed after the Enron scandal that requires greater corporate financial accountability ("But that's from the people who have to do the extra work, not the shareholders").

Besides his inbox, there's another rich source that Adams culls for Dilbert ideas: the conversations he overhears between strangers trying to impress each other at business conventions and the like.

"Everywhere you go, somebody's trying to be official, " he said.

What does it take to become a cartoonist? "Is it some sort of genetic defect?" Adams asked, getting big laughs from his Orlando audience.

Don't be fooled by the self-deprecation. An economist by training with an MBA from University of California in Berkeley, Adams knows what office workers are buzzing about. Dilbert, while it freed Adams from his cramped workspace, also turned him into a vicarious spokesman for the remaining cubicle dwellers the world over. Dilbert is published in 65 countries and 25 languages.

Newly married, Adams recently battled back from spasmodic dysphonia, a condition that rendered him mostly mute for much of 2005 and 2006. Now that he has his voice back, he said he plans to scale back on the speaking circuit to spend more time with his family.

"I just have better options now, " said Adams, who lives near San Francisco. "Doing things with the family just seems like a better deal."

Christina Rexrode can be reached at crexrode@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8318.

A selection of Scott Adams' remarks in Orlando and interview with the Times:

On Dilbert's impact: "One thing I hear all the time is, 'My company was going to institute some policy and then your comic came out and mocked it.' It turns out mockery is a powerful force. You can't mock a good idea."

Two things most in need of mocking: Casual Friday (companies should pick a dress code and stick to it all week) and outrageous executive compensation.

His inspiration for Dilbert: A former colleague served as the physical model for Dilbert, but Adams has never told him. "I always wonder if he's ever in the grocery store and people tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Do you know who you look like?' "

Why Wally is his favorite character: "There's a little bit of Wally in all of us. You know how when you're in a meeting, and everyone's getting assignments, and you think, 'If I got a cup of coffee now, I wouldn't get that assignment'? Now, you wouldn't get that cup of coffee, but Wally would."

One of the worst ideas he's ever seen from management: When he worked at Pacific Bell, the company decided it would identify the worst 10 percent of workers and offer them "a pile of money" to leave. A colleague who thus made it his mission to be Pac Bell's worst employee became Adams' inspiration for the character Wally. "I hate to say bad things about my former employer, but making it into the bottom 10 percent was not easy."

The best idea: A marketing manager who, when he divided up his employees for team projects, made sure that there was at least one young, attractive and qualified female in every group. "It's just that having her in the room made everyone act differently; it made them more energized."

What Dilbert would do if he moved to Florida: "I guess he'd retire. That's what you do when you move to Florida, isn't it?"