The Dilbert Index? (Ep. 63)

(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.) 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.


Olli M

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.

Eric M. Jones.

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.


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


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


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...


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.


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


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

Jon Weedon

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.


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.


Does that mean my company which doesn't allow decorations such as comics has good moral?

Mikkel Løkke

This is actually the "Inverse Dilbert correlation factor" and is described by Edward Yourdon in his book "Deathmarch" as:

The more DilBert cartoons pasted on office doors and bulletin boards, the less well off the project is.