Dilbert's subject matter "strikes a nerve," as Newsweek's cover story shouted in August of 1996, because it "portrays the bedrock truth of the American workplace, at least in the white-collar caverns where clerks, engineers, marketers, and salespeople dwell." This comic strip presents aspects of the corporate culture that veterans of the cubicle easily identify with: company monitoring of employee e-mail; management double talk; carpal tunnel syndrome; endless and pointless meetings; inane team-building exercises; and lower back pains resulting from excessive hours in front of the computer screen. Since his initial appearance in the early 1990s as the brain-child of MBA-trained former Pacific Bell software engineer Scott Adams, Dilbert, a nerdy engineer and the strip's main character, has become a sort of corporate everyman.
The strip centers around an anonymous company where Dilbert is employed in an unnamed department. With co-workers, he struggles to meet deadlines, withstand management trends, and endure other indignities. Each of the strip's main characters is described in Adams' 1997 retrospective Seven Years of Highly Defective People, and was inspired and shaped by bits and pieces of Adams's own experience at Pacific Bell. Much of the subject matter is supplemented by "war stories" taken directly from reader e-mail and visitors to the "Dilbert Zone," Adams' web site. Each character, therefore, embodies some facet of actual corporate reality, which is probably why readers familiar with the environment identify with the strip's material so readily.
The more significant of Dilbert's co-workers are Wally, a fellow engineer and "thoroughly cynical employee who has no sense of company loyalty and feels no need to mask his poor performance or his total lack of respect," and Alice, a no-nonsense go-getter known for her "pink suit, her fluffy hair, her coffee obsession, her technical proficiency, and her take-no-crap attitude." Other characters include the "generic guy" Ted, whose manic work habits go unnoticed by the company bigwigs, and Tina, the technical writer who resents the engineers for their failure to appreciate her talents.
This motley cast struggles to withstand the whimsical machinations and inane directives of Dilbert's dog, the annoying know-it-all Dogbert; his cat, the head of the Evil Human Resources, Catbert; the troglodytes of the Accounting Department; the Teflon-coated PR types in marketing who have no clue about what engineers do; and ultimately, the "Pointy-Haired Boss," whose coif reflects his ultimately demonic stature as a figure of management inanity and cluelessness. Together, these characters represent the worst face of corporate culture, and are frequently seen drafting dehumanizing policies, issuing obscure directives, arbitrarily demonstrating their authority, and generally making miserable the lives of the employees who nonetheless "see through" their motives.
The reality of Dilbert's world isn't too different from that of his audience of real-life counterparts who identify with his struggle to maintain his sanity. In the mid 1990s, Dilbert became a hot topic for discussion among management strategists and human resource officers, and a voice of late-capitalist corporate worker cynicism. Management Consultant Tom Brown notes that Adams' strip "take(s) virtually every HR issue of the past 20 years and catapults it to the top of many management agendas via trenchant cartoons and scathing essays in books…. Dilbert is about human rights, human purpose, and human potential. It's what the human resources profession is about, or ought to be, as well." Indeed, recent years have seen Adams' comic lampoons of corporate America achieve their status as mandatory reading for those in the management and human resource professions.
Along with his stature as an embodiment of worker frustration, Dilbert has also become a prosperous commodity as a merchandising icon. In the late 1990s, the nerdy engineer's visage could be found on everything from ties to mouse pads to coffee mugs, and his website was both the bane and the boon to other corporations, some of whom advertised on it while others blocked employee access to it. An Economist article from April 1997 observed that "There are Dilbert Dolls, Dilbert calendars and ties, a $20m contract for another five Dilbert books, plus plans for Dilbert-based television programmes and computer software. There is even talk of a Dilbertland theme park, complete with boss-shooting galleries. Mr. Adams only real worry is over-exposure—and, as he happily points out, 'you can't get to over-exposure without going through filthy rich first."' The prediction of a television show came true in 1999, when the pilot for Dilbert was aired on the Fox network.
Given its run of success, the strip has inevitably prompted criticism from those who see it as yet another management tool. Its critics argue that it nothing less than a statement that champions the virtues of efficacy, good sense, and common sense by assailing foolish bureaucracy, reductive company policy, and faddish but ineffective management schemes. In his 1997 critique The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh, author Norman Solomon contends that with Dilbert, "corporate America is not selling us the rope to hang it with; corporate America is selling us the illusions to exculpate it with. To mistake pop-culture naughtiness for opposition to the corporate system is an exercise in projection—and delusion." Others have also found it easy to point to the strip's popularity and overexposure as signs that it represents not a paean to disenfranchised workers, but just another capitalist success story.
Within its series of strategies for avoiding work while still looking busy, Dilbert's ultimate message is that the greater the technological and organizational sophistication in the workplace, the more opportunities exist to create the false image of actual productivity, as well as the documentation to validate it as production. Whether it be regarded as a subversive attack on the corporation or merely as a "steam valve" to give release to the corporate worker's frustrations, Dilbert continues to provide an important voice in the dialogue between the corporation and those at the lower levels who make it run.
Adams, Scott. The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads, and Other Workplace Af-flictions. New York, Harper Business, 1996.
——. Seven Years of Highly Defective People: Scott Adams'
Guided Tour of the Evolution of Dilbert. Kansas City, Missouri, Andrews McMeel, 1997.
"The Anti-Management Guru: Scott Adams Has Made a Business of Bashing Business. Why Does the Hand He Bites Love to Feed Him?" The Economist. April 5, 1997, 64.
Brown, Tom. "What Does Dilbert Mean to HR?" HRFocus. February, 1997, 12-13.
"The Dilbert Zone." http://www.dilbertzone.comcomicsdilbert.June 1999.
Levy, Steven. "Working in Dilbert's World." Newsweek. August 12,1996, 52-57.
Solomon, Norman. The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh. Monroe, Maine, Common Courage Press, 1997.