Business and Management INK

Joking Aside: “Dilbert” & Employee Dignity

April 14, 2011 809

 Elizabeth M. Doherty, Doherty Consulting Group, published Joking Aside, Insights to Employee Dignity in “Dilbert” Cartoons: The Value of Comic Art in Understanding the Employer-Employee Relationship,”  in the November issue of Journal of Management Inquiry.

Ms. Doherty graciously elaborated upon her process in writing this article.

Who is the target audience for this article?

Because this study investigated challenges to employee dignity from three very different perspectives – organization studies, Catholic social teaching (CST), and comic art as a representative of organization aesthetics –scholars and practitioners of varying persuasions, traditions, and interests might find this article appealing. Those interested in employee dignity, for example, will likely appreciate the insight into the feelings and emotions that managers and their subordinates may have for one another as reflected in Dilbert cartoons, and what this comic strip suggests generally about the employer-employee relationship in today’s workplace. Scholars seeking non-traditional sources of data and findings will learn the possibilities that comic art can provide in understanding human behavior and reflecting social trends. Researchers steeped in a social science approach to organization studies will see how an arts and aesthetics approach can enhance their investigations. Finally, all researchers may welcome the reminder that every scholarly tradition has strengths and limitations and that much might be learned from considering them in concert with one another as opposed to viewing alternative perspectives as antagonistic or a threat to their favored approach.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Researching and writing this article was definitely a labor of love in that I found a way to bring together several of my interests and passions. First, with an overarching concern in the well-being and dignity of humans at work, I’ve come to realize how seemingly few insights there are into why worker indignity persists and much less about how to address the problem. This study provided me with a basis to learn more about challenges to worker dignity so that future research can focus on ways to eliminate them. Second, as a student of organizational behavior, the interdisciplinary nature of this field has long attracted my interest and heightened my curiosity about what might be gained from investigating work related issues from various perspectives. In particular, I’ve often wondered what artists and writers have had to say about the nature of work and the employer-employee relationship. Exploring how comic art might assist in this quest, I got to consider what a popular comic artist, namely Scott Adams, might be saying, intentionally or not, about the employer-employee relationship at work. In short, my inspiration came from both the topic itself, employee dignity, and from the process of using an organization-arts approach to conduct the investigation.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

More than surprising, conducting the research for this study provided me with insights about perspectives and topics that I had limited, if any scholarly knowledge about before proceeding. I found the process both scary and fun: daunting and risky to research a topic not knowing if bringing together rather disparate themes would actually yield any interesting findings, but exciting when they did. What did surprise me was learning how few scholarly works have focused on dignity in the workplace despite the extensive attention that has been paid to related themes in the organization studies literature over the years. While not necessarily shocked, I did find it disheartening that negative emotions continue to ring strong between workers and their bosses — to the extent that Dilbert reflects these exchanges accurately — not because managers view their workers as unmotivated or poor performers necessarily, but instead views them as non-valued, exploitable commodities due to their subordinate position. Further research would help in determining if a structural solution could enhance employer-employee relations.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

My general hope is that this article spurs more scholars to recognize the limitations to social sciences that Zald (1993, 1996, 2002) articulated so well, and consider, if not embrace more fully, the voice of the arts and humanities in organization studies research. Students of organization aesthetics are well on the way of pushing beyond the boundaries of a traditional positivist, instrumental approach with their efforts to consider a sensory appreciation of organizational life. Even they, however, might entertain the possible value added from investigating the arts more fully. As this study shows, comic art can provide useful insights into societal trends and emotions that warrant further investigation. Finally, I hope that some scholars and practitioners will focus their energy into addressing the seemingly intractable nature of threats to employee dignity and seek solutions aimed at making a positive difference to the employer-employee relationship.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

Two of my previous studies (Doherty 2006, 2009) demonstrated that the arts and aesthetics approach generally can provide insights into management practices and do so in ways that differ from management thinkers and practitioners. This study demonstrated the contributions of applying an organization-arts perspective to a particular issue, in this case challenges to employee dignity. The results point to the need for further research into the role of hierarchy and status differences that contribute to indignities at work, and on a broader scale, to consider the input of other art forms to organization studies research.

How did your paper change during the review process?

The editor, Marvin Washington, and the two reviewers provided very helpful suggestions for strengthening the manuscript overall. In one case a reviewer’s relatively minor observation led to a major change to the manuscript. This reviewer picked up my reference to CST and commented that this literature likely had more to say about human dignity at work than I had suggested. In following up, I came to better understand how CST establishes a moral basis for employee dignity. This led me then to reframe the paper and juxtapose this perspective more formally with organization studies’ scientific perspective and aestheticism’s arts orientation, and treat my study of employee dignity within the vortex of what Wilber (1998) called the “Big Three” cultural value spheres. Taking this approach enabled me to better demonstrate the value added of a moral-scientific-arts perspective in understanding employee dignity as an important factor in defining the employer-employee relationship.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

Not much. Of course in a do-over I might take steps to minimize the stated limitations, investigate other comic strips for their insights into employee dignity, or employ alternative (or additional) techniques to analyze the data, but this study accomplished quite a bit (humbly speaking) already in bringing together quite disparate perspectives in an effort to understand threats to employee dignity. As it is, the editor graciously ignored the suggested word count in accepting this study for publication; I would not want to push my luck.

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Ahmad Fornell

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