Company Comedy Turns Dark : Tough Times Inspire Employees to Use Humor

From Bloomberg Business News

A notice on DuPont Co. bulletin boards urged employees to trim travel expenses by hitchhiking to business destinations, bunking with old friends and ducking meal checks with the old dine-and-dash routine.

It was a joke, of course. And not a bad one either.

These are, after all, black times in the white-collar world. The organization man of the 1950s and 1960s is a distant memory. So are many perks and bonuses. Jobs are getting cut 10,000 at a whack. No wonder some professionals are driven to fear, anger, despair--and comedy.

Company comedy is nothing new, but the barbs have a bit more sting these days as layoffs hit even profitable companies. "It's a vent for frustration," said Robert Kelley, a management consultant and professor of business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "There is a definite get-even side to this kind of humor."

The quintessential get-even quipster, late-night talk show host David Letterman, for years mercilessly ridiculed his bosses at NBC and parent General Electric Co. When Jay Leno--and not Letterman--got the plum assignment to host the "Tonight" last year, Letterman's sneers grew snider until he jumped to CBS.

Will Letterman give CBS executives the same treatment? He already has, but CBS doesn't want to talk about it.

Letterman is inspiration for more than one verbal assault on corporate life. Gracing computer screens at General Motors Corp. recently was a Letterman-inspired list titled "The Top 10 Reasons Lemmings March to the Sea." No. 10: "It's their corporate direction." And the No. 1 reason: "They heard the Japanese were doing it."

Work is hell in the battle-scarred computer industry, where legions have fallen victim to layoffs. Casualties of "management initiated attrition"--International Business Machines Corp.'s stodgy term for firing--are sometimes referred to as MIAs. And a few malcontents last year toyed with adding "Or Thwim" to the company's ubiquitous "Think" signs.

When Apple Computer Inc. introduced its LaserWriter line of printers a few years back in the midst of a morale crisis, wisecrackers dubbed the machine "the resume writer."

One thing that makes these rough-edged barbs so easy to do these days is technology. Electronic mail and other computerized information sources are perfectly suited for the modern-day samizdat. At Digital Equipment Corp., which has slashed 20% of its work force in the last two years, bitterness reached new heights in a widely circulated e-mail riddle: "What's the difference between DEC and Jurassic Park?" Answer: "One is a high-tech theme park full of dinosaurs; the other is a Steven Spielberg movie."

It's all anonymous, naturally. Few workers would dare put their names to such sedition at any blue-chip colossus, where rebellious outbursts are as rare as Mohawk haircuts.

At Eastman Kodak Co., which recently said it would cut 10,000 more jobs by the end of 1995, the likeness of departing CEO Kay Whitmore can be found on phony handbills hawking a new movie. The title: "Honey, I Shrunk the Company."

Procter & Gamble Co. workers skewered Chairman Ed Artzt's penchant for acronyms. In the next few years, the company plans to eliminate 12% of its work force, or 13,000 jobs, under a program called "Strengthening Global Effectiveness," or SGE for short. Grumpy workers say that stands for "Say Goodby to Ed."

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