The Dilbert Principle


“I wrote The Dilbert Principle around the concept that in many cases the least competent, least smart people are promoted, simply because they’re the ones you don’t want doing actual work. You want them ordering the doughnuts and yelling at people for not doing their assignments—you know, the easy work. Your heart surgeons and your computer programmers—your smart people—aren’t in management. That principle was literally happening everywhere.”

Scott Adams

I was listening to Peter Day on Radio 4’s Archives programme on iPlayer recently and Dilbert’s principle of management came up. Dilbert is, of course, a hilarious albeit rather cruel satirical cartoon on the absurdities of office life. But, being a satire, it is founded in recognizable truths. The over-promoted middle manager has long been a staple of comedy programmes – does anyone remember The Peter Principle (*) starring Jim Broadbent from a few years back?

The up shot of the Dilbert Principle is that it is these allegedly over-promoted managers who, amongst ordering doughnuts, organizing team building exercises and sending round pointless emails about pointless things, are the ones at the employment law frontline. When a dispute between employer and employee erupts, it is often because of a personality clash, or an over-zealous newby-manager trying to impose their authority. It might be caused by botching a redundancy selection program, or failing to understand quite what the Company’s policy on flexible working actually says. Whatever the reason it is certain that Dilbert would blame the middle manager.  I’m not sure that I would.

How much training do managers tend to get in employment law? Are they given the knowledge to develop skills to manage their staff better? Disputes cannot be prevented all the time, but surely they can be reduced through training and awareness? This must be particularly true in smaller companies that do not have dedicated HR departments. For all those companies that worry about not being able to manage their businesses because of overbearing employment laws, think again. It doesn’t have to be like that – develop a culture that allows employees to thrive and get managers fully trained.

* The Peter Principle is a well-established aphorism, which probably spawned the Dilbert Principle.

Michael Scutt, Employment Solicitor 

Employment solicitor with Crane and Staples, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Blogger & writer. I like cycling, cricket, football and history.