The Dilbert Index? A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Ol.v!er)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Dilbert Index?” (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) It’s about workplace morale and the measurement thereof.

This segment was largely crowd-sourced from Freakonomics blog readers — so: thanks! It began with a blog post in which a reader named Tim Wadlow asserted that the direction you park in your company lot may say something about company morale. We then opened up the blog to further observations on company morale. One of the most interesting: the “Dilbert Index,” as described by a reader named Damon Beaven:

BEAVEN: I look for the number of Dilbert comics and that seems to be inversely proportional to the level of morale. A lot of Dilbert comics seems to be like a passive aggressive way of an employee complaining.

We also take a step back and ask the basic questions like: How much does company morale matter to a company’s bottom line? What’s the best way to measure morale? And, in the realm of unintended consequences, what happens when a company tries to cut down on sick days?

These questions are addressed by Michael Johnson, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, who specializes in organizational behavior.

JOHNSON: A lot of the current research on employee morale and managing people in general in organizations suggests that this may be the only remaining competitive advantage that organizations have. Organizations that do this well, they tend to do really well financially, too.

A recent paper of Johnson’s, published in the Journal of Management, is quite interesting; it’s called “Outcomes of Absence Control Initiatives: A Quasi-Experimental Investigation into the Effects of Policy and Perceptions.” It looks at an auto-manufacturing company that set up a new policy, including both carrots and sticks, to cut down on employees taking too many sick days. Along the way, Johnson and his co-author also looked at absenteeism under the Family and Medical Leave Act

JOHNSON: Overall absenteeism dropped about four to four and a half days, but the absenteeism that was related to the FMLA went up about a day or a day and a half over the year. So it seemed to us they might actually be gaming the system so they could keep taking days off work and not suffer any punishment for it.


Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name – it is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, good to talk to you again.


Stephen Dubner: Great to talk to you, Kai. And I've got a question for you.


Ryssdal: All right, shoot.


Dubner: Are you pretty happy with your job these days?


Ryssdal: Uh, am I pretty happy? Most days, yeah.


Dubner: Tell me this: What about your co-workers? How's their employee morale, would you say?


Ryssdal: It depends on how heavy the beatings are. But no, actually they're doing all right.


Dubner: You know, workplace morale is something -- especially in an economy like this -- is something really worth thinking about. It translates directly into productivity: low morale, bad for the bottom line; good morale is kind of a tide that lifts all boats. Now, here's Michael Johnson, who studies organizational behavior at the University of Washington.


Michael Johnson: A lot of the current research on employee morale and managing people in general in organizations suggests that this may be the only remaining competitive advantage that organizations have. Organizations that do this well, they tend to do really well financially too.


Dubner: But Kai, let me run an interesting wrinkle past you: In a tough job market like this one, fewer people quit their jobs -- less than two million a month now compared to more than three million before the recession. Which means that more grumpy employees are staying put.


Ryssdal: Right. So they're staying put because they're worried that they can't find another job, right?


Dubner: Exactly.


Ryssdal: How do you measure grumpiness?


Dubner: Well, unfortunately that's the problem: It's hard. A lot of firms do surveys, but personally, in my work --


Ryssdal: Here's the thing: For HR managers everywhere -- we all lie on those surveys.


Dubner: Yeah, exactly. We lie on most surveys. But especially, 'How happy are you? And I'm the person who pays you and I need you to tell me how happy you are.' So sometimes you have to get creative. We actually put this question out to readers on our Freakonomics blog, and we got some good answers. Here's Damon Beaven, he's a software engineer in Lexington, Ky. He used to visit lots of different companies; here's how he sussed out worker morale in those places.

Damon Beaven: I looked for the number of "Dilbert" comics, and that seemed to be inverse proportional to the level of morale. A lot of "Dilbert" comics seemed to be like a passive aggressive way of employee complaining.


Ryssdal: This is good. First of all, I love the Dilbert index, but also I love that we're crowd-sourcing this segment now. That's awesome.


Dubner: Of course. We've cut down here, I don't know if you knew. All right, try this one: This is from a management consultant named Tim Wadlow. He visited more than 100 manufacturing companies around the world. He came to believe that parking direction is an indicator of employee morale. Here's what Wadlow saw at the companies that had low morale.


Tim Wadlow: A lot of these people seemed very anxious to leave work and often, if they got to work, they would back their cars into their parking spot. And it seemed like the moment they got to work, they were so dreading it that they were planning their escape.


Ryssdal: I like that, that's great. Now, that doesn't apply here at Marketplace world headquarters because our parking lot is mandated nose-in parking only.


Dubner: That's a way to keep morale high -- force people to park that way.


Ryssdal: That's true. You must. OK, this is good anecdotal evidence -- the key phrase there being 'anecdotal,' my friend.


Dubner: Exactly. What you really want to know is you want to keep your eye on sick days, because calling in sick -- especially when you're not sick -- is kind of the ultimate expression of bad morale.


Ryssdal: Well, yeah, but come on -- HR's going to call everybody who calls in sick and says, 'I need a note from your doctor'? What are we -- 12?


Dubner: Not going to happen, unfortunately. Michael Johnson, the University of Washington professor we heard from earlier, he investigated a pair of auto parts plants that tried out a variety of incentives. Some were carrots, some were sticks. They wanted to cut down on absenteeism. He found that the combination of threat and reward actually worked very well. But he also found an interesting loophole, a little something we call the FMLA, or the Family Medical Leave Act. Are you familiar with that?


Ryssdal: Yeah, you bet, it's you get time off to care for a sick, injured whatever family member, yeah.


Dubner: Exactly, the federal law. Now, when the company made it harder to call in sick the old way, some employees found a new way. Here's Michael Johnson.


Johnson: Overall absenteeism dropped about four to four-and-a-half days, but the absenteeism that was related to the FMLA went up about a day or a day-and-a-half over the year. So it seemed to us, they might actually be gaming the system so that they could keep taking days off work and not suffer any punishment for it.


Ryssdal: Right, so it took us a while to get there, but this is the hidden side, right? This is the unintended consequences of all that stuff?


Dubner: That's exactly right. And you know, at the end of the day, isn't it nice to know that whenever you're feeling down and need a little me time, the federal government is there to give you a day off?


Ryssdal: Yeah, right. Stephen Dubner, is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks. Talk to you later.


Dubner: Thanks so much, Kai.


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  1. Olli M says:

    It seems to me that battling absenteeism is treating the symptom, when the real gains could be had from treating the cause. Get employee morale up, they will take less sick days and be more productive overall.

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  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Yes, Dilbert comics are a passive aggressive way of an employee complaining…and the very fact that Dilbert has be co-opted by Business Schools is cynicism that only Dilbert could comprehend.

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  3. VBinNV says:

    The best part of the podcast: when Dubner sneaks in a, “Thanks a lot Guy” at the end.

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  4. cecile says:

    I don’t buy into the Dilbert theory. There aren’t many people getting actual paper copes of newspapers anymore.

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    • Jason says:

      Your point might actually strengthen the theory. People don’t get print newspapers – they go online during work, read Dilbert, print to a company printer, cut out the cartoon and pin it up. Clearly not someone engaged in work. I’ve been there…

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    • Christina says:

      No, but they print the comics off the website from their work computer on their work printer.

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  5. pawnman says:

    I wonder how often we also see Scott Adams’ “Dilbert Principle” in effect…that incompetent employees are systematically moved to the place where they do the least amount of damage, middle management. It certainly seems that in most of my jobs, the middle managers where the least competent members of the company. It’s a play on the “Peter Principle”, which states people will keep getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

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  6. Bart says:

    What does it say when you are self-employed and have tons of Dilbert comics posted around your office?

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    • Josie says:

      :) It means you are unconsciously reminding yourself daily or hourly, why you are self-employed. Love it!

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  7. Jon Weedon says:

    Damon Beaven is on the money. Dilbert is a passenger. He stands there seemingly powerless to do anything positive or fix anything. All he does is mock the obvious. Dilbert fans identify with his frustrations and think that sharing a regular comic strip with their colleagues, apart from being funny, is their contribution to making things better. What they are really doing is copying Dilbert’s impotence and inaction. The spirit of Dilbert thrives most in organisations where people feel undervalued, ignored and doing meaningless work. If I were conducting cultural due diligence on a company, I’d just walk around the offices and count how many Dilbert strips are hanging off the walls.

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  8. Dan says:

    Regarding the comment from Johnson in the article: This may be an unintended consequence, but the specific desired effect of the manufacturing company’s PAID absenteeism may have been satisfied. In my experience over the last decade and a half of processing payrolls for literally hundreds of different companies, the best way to curb payouts of paid time off without losing employees is to give it to them over time. Where the employer gives it to them in advance – often as a result of outdated policies from a different era of productivity, or a simple lack of forethought – they invariably have issues with employees abusing the system.

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