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In a world of weasels

'Dilbert' creator Scott Adams explains how everybody from Enron to your lazy co-worker gets away with so much.

November 17, 2002|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

Energy rip-offs, insider trading, crumbling institutions, double-talk from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue -- what has the world come to? Scott Adams has a theory.

"There's a huge weasel bubble forming in society," postulates the Bay Area cartoonist who created Dilbert, the mouthless cubicle-dweller and patron saint of American wage slaves. "You've heard how, when cabdrivers start giving you stock tips, you know it's a stock market bubble? Well, when historians make up history and executives are falsifying resumes and priests are having better sex than you are -- well, when things like that happen, you know that society has become weasel-infested." Hence Adams' new book, "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel" (HarperBusiness).

Reached by phone in Seattle (where he was either doing a book signing or weaseling out of work on a Thursday, he wasn't quite saying), Adams elaborated on this weasel thing.

Hasn't the world always had its weasels?

Yes, I think so. But the best weasels are so much more effective than they used to be. It's a time management thing. It isn't just personal calls on the work phone anymore. Now it's "Let's spend a bunch of money and call it all capital expenses!" It's a whole different level today.

Is that what inspired you to do this book?

I just kept noticing that everybody seemed despicable, from businessmen to politicians to just about every encounter. I also send a newsletter out to about 600,000 people, and they send me their stories. One of my favorites was how all the dot-coms, which had all these cubicles with nobody in them, were dressing up the empty cubicles when visitors came to make them appear occupied. One company was actually asking employees to bring in family members to sit in the cubicles so the place wouldn't look so deserted.

Another bunch of stories involved the great goal of all management, which is to give employees things they feel are like money but don't cost anything. In the dot-com era, it used to be stock options. Now I'm hearing it's 'imaginary raises.' The way it works is, you come in for your annual performance review and the boss says that they're not giving raises this year, but if they could give raises -- which they can't -- but if they could, you'd get 4% this year.

Sounds like if you can't beat 'em, this is the time to join 'em. How can the Way of the Weasel be put to use by a rank-and-file employee?

Well, take teamwork. Teamwork is a trick often used in the office by other people to get you to do their work for them. So if someone tries to rope you into being on a "team," you counter with a weasel trick known as Being Too Helpful.

You cheerfully agree to help, but then at every stage you question the global strategic implications. If they want you to make copies, you question the whole idea of the use of paper -- paper versus paperless strategies, double-sided versus one-sided copies, legal or regular-sized paper. In other words, you become so eager to please that you become a huge pain. This way no one ever asks for your help again, and the beauty is that any complaints sound unreasonable because they're essentially that you were being too helpful.

How about using weasel techniques to ward off layoffs?

What I recommend is that when you smell it coming -- and a weasel can always smell it coming -- that's the time to get a fake back injury. Don't do it the ordinary way and stop worrying the minute you get disability. You have to be conscious that they might send someone out with a video camera to see if you're really injured. So, say you've made your claim, and now you're golfing. Right after every putt, throw yourself on the ground and writhe in agony. That way, the rest of your foursome will just think you're a bad sport, but you're covered in case anybody's filming secretly.

What if you're further up the food chain and vulnerable to damaging allegations from underlings, a la Martha Stewart? How can the Way of the Weasel apply?

Do this trick. When a co-worker is hired who might end up as a witness against you, inoculate yourself. You go to your boss and say, "You know the new guy? I think he's a pathological liar."

Because whatever people say about the new guy always sticks forever. And you want to get him before he goes to the boss and gets you.

Hmm. That sounds a little effortful. What advice do you have for people who prefer to weasel out of the company of weasels altogether? In other words, how do you spot weasels in your midst?

I give this handy tip. Look into any shiny object and you'll see a weasel. Also, weasels are very attracted to money. I calculate that $10 will attract one weasel. So if you put down a $20 bill and two people appear as if by magic, those are the weasels and you can avoid them.

Are some jobs more attractive than others to weasels?

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