World-famous cartoonist Scott Adams explains to DeeDee Doke how he can
relate the world of his cartoon characters to the world of human resources and
gives his definition of key HR concepts
The northern California neighbourhood where cartoonist Scott Adams lives is
American suburbia perfected to the highest possible gloss – a world far removed
from the beyond-bland cubicle city inhabited by Adams’ sad-sack creation
Dilbert and his woebegone, evil or incompetent co-workers and bosses.
Through the worldwide circulation and wild appreciation of Dilbert, Adams
has unquestionably earned his success, his millions and his right to live in a
beautiful, big house – but somehow, it’s a relief to find wayward grass poking
its way through the flagstones on his patio. Too much polished perfection would
not be worthy of the cynical voice of the modern workforce.
Adams is no longer merely a best-selling artist and author, however. He owns
a restaurant and is building a second. He also heads up Scott Adams Foods,
which makes and sells the vegetarian Dilberito, a product Adams believes has
the potential of becoming "the blue jeans of food". In short, he’s
joining the ranks of dreaded management through entrepreneurial enterprise. But
he follows a few HR rules of his own making to create his ideal workplace.
"The fewer the employees the better," says Adams "So for my
food company, we have national distribution but just one employee – and he owns
a percentage of the company – and he’s qualified. So I know he knows what to
do. And I know he knows he wants to do it because his income is directly
affected. So it practically manages itself. Anything that he wants to do, he
just has to make a case, and I almost always say yes. So that’s actually pretty
"The restaurant’s a similar deal. I’m primarily the financial investor,
and my business partner does all the managing. Then we split the money."
Boyish and bespectacled, Adams laughs easily. Although he originally hails
from upper New York State, his speech has acquired the Californian lilt of a
question at the end of every sentence. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in
economics from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, then an MBA from
University of California at Berkeley "just for the credentials", he
confesses. He shares his home with the fabled Pam, whom he always thanks in the
credits of his books, and two cats – one who likes visitors and one who hides
At six, Adams knew he wanted to be a world-famous cartoonist. "That
kind of went away when I realised there were only a few of them. There were
four billion people on earth at that time, and there were maybe six with the
job I wanted, so the odds didn’t look good," he explains. "So I
thought I’d be a be a lawyer or something. But I always thought that, at some
point, I would do something entrepreneurial and that I would be wildly
successful. I always irrationally believed that."
Dilbert was launched in 1989, when Adams worked for the telecoms company
Pacific Bell, and the cartoon became a true international hit between 1995 and
1998. Adams left in 1995 at the company’s request. "I had an arrangement
during my last year or so that whenever I was more trouble than I was worth,
they just had to ask me to leave because I didn’t need to work there at that
point. One day, they needed the budget more than they needed me, and my boss
asked me to leave," he says.
But did he go quietly? Not quite. His bearded boss’ last words to Adams were
"please don’t introduce a character with a beard". So the first
character he introduced after leaving had a beard. "Except it was a
special beard," Adams says, perhaps a shade too deadpan. The character, he
adds, was "too dumb to be able to grow it down his chin, so it came out of
Adams’ perception of the HR professional is reflected in Dilbert’s world
through the character of ‘Catbert, the evil director of HR’. "The few
times when I leave out ‘evil’, just for space, I get letters from people saying
‘Why isn’t he evil anymore? We like him evil!’"
Originally drawn into the cartoon as an anonymous cat for a one-day stand,
reader interest spurred Catbert’s addition as a regular member. Adams wondered
what kind of job the character should have. Then it struck him.
"Personality wise, the cat seemed like the perfect director of HR, because
if you think about it, a cat doesn’t really care if you live or die, but it
wouldn’t mind playing with you before you go. So that seemed to fit the HR
people I’d been familiar with. And it hit a chord because the HR people
embraced it. It was a perfect marriage."
The ‘evil’ in the title is no mistake, Adams insists. "Catbert really
conveys pure evil, and at some level, I think HR people are relating to the
fact that they are the agents of evil. I mean, the whole point of any
leadership is to get people to do things they didn’t want to do on their own.
Otherwise, why would you need leadership? So if there could be a more perfect
definition of evil, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think they
necessarily enjoy being evil all the time, but they’re fully aware that they’re
the carriers of evil."
Both in his early banking career and during his stint at Pacific Bell, first
as a budget analyst and then as an engineer, Adams encountered the kind of
surreal workplace scenarios that give Dilbert its ‘been there, done that’
credibility. "This is a good HR story," he says about when he left
Pacific Bell. "It was a time when the company was downsizing. So if you
ever downsized anybody, since they were trying to downsize by attrition, you
could never hire anybody to replace them. So within a group, if you had more of
a need for engineers than for budget analysts, your best bet was to take your
budget analyst and make him an engineer – which is what happened to me. They
said: ‘You can use a computer, right? You’re an engineer now.’
"I was the most incompetent engineer ever," he says. "I was
game for anything because I have no normal sense of embarrassment for failure.
Perhaps it was bred out of me. They threw me in a lab, and customers would come
in, with all this high-tech stuff around – we were working on ISDN lines at the
time. I’d be desperately trying to connect cables and make things work, with no
idea what I was talking about."
Adams’ own experience demonstrates how, when it comes to story material,
downsizing and Dilbert are a match made in heaven. "Dilbert did the worst
during the dotcom frenzy because I couldn’t find anyone to complain about their
The HR tenet of diversity poses an ongoing dilemma for Adams, however,
because of the push-pull of reader demand for a mixed bag of characters against
the cloud of political correctness. Most of Dilbert’s characters are white
males, with several exceptions: Asok is Indian, Juan Delegado is Hispanic and
Alice is a woman. But don’t expect to see greater ethnic or racial diversity in
Adams’ cartoon workplace. "There are two reasons I don’t do more
diversity, and one of them is the worst reason in the world: diversity is
harder to draw. With a little black and white cartoon, to show somebody being
anything other than the generic white person, you would have to do it partly
with features. If a white person draws anybody who is non-white with features
that are their interpretation of what their features look like, it’s nothing
"It doesn’t matter what I do, it would just be a world of hurt,"
he says. "And in any case, all the characters are flawed: Wally is lazy,
Dilbert has no social life, and Alice is mean. That’s what makes them
interesting. Imagine having an African-American character. What flaw do I give
them? What could I get away with, me being the whitest person in the universe?
"The answer is, I can’t get away with it. I would love to do it, and I
would love to make all characters as despicable as the Caucasian characters. I
just can’t get away with it. Someday the world will allow it, but that world
doesn’t exist now.
"I get lots of complaints whenever I have Asok do anything that makes
him look inexperienced," Adams continues. "His flaw, if you can call
it that, is that he’s new – and that’s not even that much of a flaw. He’s not
as cynical and beaten down as the others. But with political correctness, logic
isn’t really part of the equation."
Bravely, Adams was the first American cartoonist to give his mass audience
his e-mail address. As a result, he receives hundreds of messages a day from
readers, with about 15 per cent writing to him from outside the US. What he’s
learned is that workplace issues are pretty universal, and he reciprocates by
leaving out Americanisms that could dilute Dilbert’s universality. "I
don’t do Fourth of July jokes, and if I’m doing a sport, I’m more likely to do
soccer. They might change the word, but at least they’ll recognise it because
even things like baseball don’t always translate."
Of his life today, he most loves being able to control his own schedule.
"I found, for example, there’s a time of the day when I’m really creative,
and there’s a time of the day when I can’t do anything except staple and
collate. And if you’re in the business world, and you work for someone else,
they will invariably want you to be creative during your tired time and collate
during your creative time until you’re virtually worthless. My ability to do
what I’m best at when I’m best at it makes me very happy.
The hardest aspect of life now, however, is the fact that "you can’t
complain" he says. "Nobody wants to hear it because, relatively
speaking, things are going so well. My complaints are so petty that they sound
like luxuries to other people. I believe that everyone has a certain amount of
complaining they need to get out before they die. You’re born with a store of
complaints, and if you get rid of all of then, then you die. So I’ll probably
live forever because I can’t expunge them quickly enough.
"So," he adds, "that’s really not a big problem."
GlobalHR asked Scott Adams to play jargon association with key HR
Human capital: "It’s like
resources. All these words that try to turn human beings into fuel,
Empower: "The manager’s
solution to the fact that sometimes things would be the manager’s fault, and
that was not good. So by inventing this sacred word, empowered, they could tell
the employees that it was their responsibility for their own decisions. Then,
of course, they still had to do what the manager wanted them to do, except now
they had to guess what things would get them in trouble and what things
wouldn’t. Then when they did things the manager didn’t like, the manager could
yell at them and blame them, so it’s like the perfect management trap. You
still had all the control you ever had but now you had more credibility in
blaming your employees."
Value added: "Expensive
phrase for ‘What are you good for?’ I confess I’ve used that phrase. Once in a
while, you want to convey that you’re making a point and also that you’re a
very business-minded person. So you say something is ‘value added’. But it’s
also a fairly useful thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a
situation where I’ve had to ask somebody what value was being added. It’s funny
there’s even a phrase for it because it should be built in."
"As far as it goes, performance management is like its own little
category, because everybody, when asked, who’s been involved either as manager
or employee, will tell you they (appraisals) don’t work. And everyone will
still do them. That’s the part I don’t get. Where’s the value added, you might
Succession planning: "The
thing that you want to pretend you’re doing but don’t actually do because if
there’s a succession plan then you can be canned. So it’s the last thing you
want to do by the time you’ve become an executive, when it actually starts
mattering. You’re certainly smart enough to not have a successor. You’d be a
fool. So you want to have somebody who’s totally incompetent, but at least has
good hair or is tall or looks good or something, so it’s not as if you haven’t
done your job. But you want everyone to know it’s big trouble if that person
Talent management: "Maybe that’s another phrase for
taking care of the prima donnas."
Managers: "You have to
have them, I’m not advocating getting rid of them. I’m just thinking that the
best kind of management could be to show up every once in awhile. Do a good
hour of managing and then go play golf. And it probably would be just as good,
but you wouldn’t look like a manager, and you would be fired if you did that."
Management books: "I’ve
perused many. If you could become a better manager by reading management books,
then the only people who would be bad managers would be the illiterate. And
even they could get books on tape. So, really, if they worked, you could solve
everybody’s problem. You could say ‘Hey, you really suck as a manager. Read a
book. Try a book, that’ll fix you up’. There’s just so much evidence that it
doesn’t work that I’m amazed, amazed, that anybody can think that it would
Dilbert: The Way of the Weasel by
Scott Adams (out in October 2002)
God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams,
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001
Excuse Me While I Wag by Scott Adams, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001
Random Acts of Management by Scott Adams, Andrews
McMeel Publishing, 2000
The Joy of Work by Scott Adams, Andrews McMeel
E-mail Scott Adams at email@example.com