Employer needs to lighten up

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The office bulletin board, any office bulletin board at any company, has traditionally been a repository for humor that lampoons the company. Unless the humor makes a vicious personal attack against an individual administrator, management typically accepts the humor stoically, although often not appreciatively.

The Dilbert cartoon, which takes an irreverent view of business from the perspective of rather bizarre characters, has found its way onto many workplace bulletin boards.

In the case of an employee of the Catfish Bend floating casino in Fort Madison, the placing of a Dilbert cartoon on a bulletin board in an employee only area resulted in termination of the employee, David Steward of Fort Madison.

In the strip, two characters have the following exchange:

"Why does it seem as if most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?"

"Decisions are made by people who have time, not people who have talent."

"Why are talented people so busy?"

"They're fixing the problems made by people who have time."

After the comic strip was posted last October, casino managers reviewed surveillance tapes and determined Steward was responsible. He was fired, and the casino subsequently challenged his claim for unemployment benefits.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams said Steward's dismissal might be the first confirmed instance of a worker being fired for posting a "Dilbert" comic strip in the workplace.

What made the comic strip particularly timely is the fact that it was posted soon after an announcement that the floating casino would close. It closed a week before Thanksgiving. The company will continue to operate a land-based casino with the same name in Burlington.

We suspect management wanted to reduce, although only by a slight amount, the cost of its unemployment premiums by reducing one person from those eligible to collect unemployment insurance after the casino closed. If that was the intent, it didn't work.

Administrative Law Judge Lynette Donner sided with Steward, ruling the posting of the comic strip represented "a good-faith error in judgment," not intentional misbehavior.

We applaud the decision by the judge. The casino operators showed a lack of compassion, perhaps in a cynical attempt to avoid paying a few dollars that it owes for unemployment insurance premiums.

Sometimes employers don't like being the focus of humorous jibes but they risk far more damage by overreacting.