Dilbert key to assessing grumpy employees, Freakonomics author says

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 1:37 p.m. MST

Dilbert knows how happy employees are.

A podcast featuring "Freakonomics" co-author Stephen J. Dubner discussed employee morale, how it is related to productivity and profits — and how the popular workplace cartoon Dilbert is one way to measure how grumpy workers might be.

And grumpiness affects the bottom-line.

"It translates directly into productivity. Low morale (is) bad for the bottom line; good morale is kind of a tide that lifts all boats," Dubner said.

Bad morale may be high, because in a recovering economy, people are less likely to risk leaving their job. Before the recession, Dubner said, more than 3 million people quit their jobs each month. Now it is less than 2 million a month.

"Which means that more grumpy employees are staying put," he said.

So how does a company measure morale?

A lot of firms do surveys, Dubner said, but people lie on 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.'"

Which sounds like that survey former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson touted in 2005 after an employee left the office and said the morale was awful.

"The results of that survey are so counter to the way the media has been portraying what's going on here," Anderson said at the time. "In fact, the survey reflects that the morale in this office is better than in any other department in city government. ... We love each other."

But there might be other ways of measuring whether happiness is floating among the cubicles at work. One way was suggested by Tim Wadlow, a management consultant who visited more than 100 manufacturing companies across the globe. Wadlow told Freakonomics.com how he noticed an odd trend.

"The direction that employees parked in their parking spots highly correlated with employee morale and satisfaction with their jobs," he said. "Most of the cars parked forward? A good company to work for, with employees who want to get to work. Most cars backwards? It seems as though the moment that the employee got to work, he or she was planning a quick exit."

This sparked a discussion on Freakonomics.com about other ways of measuring morale.

Enter Dilbert.

Damon Beaven, a commenter on the website, is a software engineer in Lexington, Ky. Beaven looked to see how many Dilbert comics were posted around his company. The number "seemed to be inverse proportional to the level of morale," he said. "A lot of 'Dilbert' comics seemed to be a passive aggressive way of employee complaining."

Testing this at the Deseret News, for example, produced only one Dilbert cartoon calendar in somebody's cubicle.

In the podcast, Dubner suggested a better measurement is the number of sick days taken.

"Because calling in sick, especially when you're not sick, is kind of the ultimate expression of bad morale," he said.

People expressing low morale by taking sick days? Sounds like a good idea for a Dilbert cartoon.

This article uses aggregated content from Marketplace.org, Freakonomics.com, and Inc.com.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: @degroote FACEBOOK: facebook.com/madegroote

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