Do nothing, get paid: the “Michelangelos of work avoidance”

Paul Raven @ 09-12-2010

Interesting piece at Forbes here about a sort of person we’ve all known – or maybe even been, to a greater or lesser extent* – in our working careers: they are the “Michelangelos of work avoidance” [via BigThink]:

Work-avoidance Michelangelos know how to stay idle while suffering no consequences or, in some cases, even getting promoted. June lasted in her job for more than a decade before finally being laid off, and when her termination came it had little to do with her lack of productivity. The office was automating her job.

One of her skills was spending little time at her desk or anywhere near the department where she supposedly worked, so that her bosses didn’t even think about her much. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say. “If people don’t think of you, they can’t give you work,” Abrahamson says. Other ways to accomplish that: Arrive at different, unpredictable times of day. Work from home. Set up your schedule so that you frequently change locations.

[…]

If your boss does manage to track you down and try to give you some work, you can strategically deploy a kind of good-natured cluelessness. “The principal here is that you try to give work to a person and come to the conclusion that they can’t even understand the instructions,” Abrahamson explains. In such a case most bosses will figure it’s easier to do the work themselves.

If you perform a specialized function within your office, you can distort the time it takes to get it done. Among June’s supposed jobs was keeping time sheets for her department’s staff. No one else knew the system she’d set up or how long keeping the data took. Thus she could make a task that took minutes appear to consume hours of toil. People with computer expertise who work among Luddites can easily exploit this tactic.

Then there’s what Abrahamson calls the anticipatory screw-up. Make it clear to your boss, in the most pleasant way possible, that you will fail at the assignment she wants to give you. “You don’t have to fail,” advises Abrahamson. “You just have to be clear that you’re going to fail.” Most smart bosses will then give the job to someone else.

Not really surprising that as complex a system as corporate capitalism should have provided niches for freeloaders, nor that human beings – with their innate gravitation towards maximum rewards for minimum outlay – should have taken to them so successfully.

And before you think I’m beating on capitalism alone, I’m pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour goes all the way back into the dawn of history; I suspect shamanism may have arisen due to one or two people per tribe being smart enough to see a way to game the social system. (“Sorry, can’t go hunting with you this week, guys; waaaaaay too busy communing with the gods. But they did tell me that y’all might want to try your luck beyond the third hill to the North…”)

[ * Not me, obviously; I was always a model employee wherever I worked before becoming freelance. SRSLY. ]

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9 Responses to “Do nothing, get paid: the “Michelangelos of work avoidance””

  1. Darren T says:

    My missus works with a couple of expert work-shy idiots. One of them just spends 80% of his time surfing the web, but the other actually goes as far as to carry on his other job – a football scout for Newcastle United, no less – from his desk, in full view and hearing of an entire open-plan office.

    Unfortunately, he’s a know bully and it’s a public-sector organisation, so no-one has the incentive, motivation to challenge him about it, knowing that nothing will be done by anyone in a position of authority and they’ll have to live with the consequences. Shitty situation, but that’s local authorities for you.

  2. Chris East says:

    I’m hoping it says something positive about my work ethic that reading this post makes me want to punch June in the face.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Having also worked with a number of Michelangelos myself (also public sector, though I don’t think private enterprise is immune; the slacking just happens further up the chain), I honestly think a great number these people aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing, or have framed it in such a way to themselves that it feels completely fair and reasonable. The lies we tell ourselves are the strongest lies of all.

  4. jt says:

    Hey-oooo that’s me. When I’m at my best, anyway.

  5. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    I had a boss like this — private sector, not public. (The idea that the private sector is more efficient than the public is a myth.) He’s still there, still getting paid middle management wages, still doing the nothing he’s been doing for the 15 years that I know about.

  6. Justin Pickard says:

    We call it Ferrispunk. After Tim Ferris.

  7. Paul Raven says:

    After Ferriss Bueller, surely? 😉

  8. Darren T says:

    @Nancy – I was just basing that on my own experience of both sectors – depending on the size of the organisation, the private sector seems far more likely to eventually wise up to the work-shy fop in question and show them the door, especially if their inaction becomes noticeable in terms of an effect on the bottom-line. Particularly in smaller companies or entrepreneur-lead firms.

    Whereas a lot of public sector organisations seem to be based on an unshakeable blame-avoidance culture – nobody wants to be seen to be causing trouble, however appropriate or beneficial that trouble might be to the rest of the organisation – so this sort of behaviour goes un-dealt-with for much, much longer. Keep your head down, spend all of this year’s budget so you can put in a claim for a larger one next year, don’t rock the boat. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum…

  9. Michael Canfield says:

    “Arrive at different, unpredictable times of day. Work from home. Set up your schedule so that you frequently change locations.”

    It’s always amazing and fun to hear how much thought and effort some people can put into ensuring they never do anything productive. We all slack off some of the time, but I think fear (rather than laziness) is often a main driver in the chronic offender. The person feels incompetent, fears being exposed as a fraud, and wants to be invisible. Then they feel ashamed and less competent than ever, and work even harder to avoid detection. People like this don’t realize that we all feel incompetent, at least from time to time, we all feel, at least occasionally that we were left of the How-To-Be-An-Adult manual distribution list. These avoidance masters’ problem is the they each believe that they are the only one. It must be terribly stressful and isolating.