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Feb 2, 2020

While you were out . . . they took the laughter from working lives

written by Lisa Eason

Satire is a necessary antidote when any sphere of human activity takes itself too seriously. Business is surely such an endeavour, constantly making great claims over its importance. Consequently, it should be routinely mocked.

The traditional vehicle for satire was the written word. In the corporate era, four books brilliantly ridiculed the follies of big business — while also offering valuable advice on how to navigate office hierarchies. The earliest was Shepherd Mead’s slim volume How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, published in 1952. It was later made into a Broadway musical and a movie. Its target was the genre of the American author Horatio Alger — self-improvement tales where humble boys rise from rags to riches. Mead was an American advertising executive who loved England so much, he came to live here.

The second in the quartet, published in 1957, was Parkinson’s Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress, written by C Northcote Parkinson. He had served as a major in the army, then became a historian. Unquestionably, his experience in such organisations as universities and the armed forces gave rise to his cynical views of institutional life. His book advanced a theorem that states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

In 1969, Laurence J Peter published his book The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. He was a Canadian professor of education who formulated his eponymous principle thus: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Rather like the three other books, his work is basically an attack on bureaucracies, be they multinationals or the civil service.

The final book of the collection, dating to the age of the conglomerate, is perhaps the best. It is Robert Townsend’s Up the Organisation, first published in 1970. He was a highly successful executive who served as chairman of Avis Rent a Car and pioneered its wonderful slogan We Try Harder — because it was the runner-up rival to Hertz. The book is arranged as a series of mini chapters from A to Z, covering such topics as budgets, expense accounts, investment bankers, office parties, stock options and titles. Most of the wisdom he imparts is still relevant, even if some of it feels rather dated for our identity-politics generation.

All four books are light-hearted, but each also carries plenty of truth about the madness of boardrooms and how destructive bad management can be. Not many of the fundamentals have changed since these books were written, and I would recommend any of them to modern-day employees.

There are surely more business books now than ever before — but almost no amusing ones; it seems we live in rather humourless times.

Sadly, there have been very few memorable new titles written in the same spirit during the past few decades. Dilbert, an American comic strip written by Scott Adams since 1989, is a clever pastiche of the modern workplace, set in a highly dysfunctional technology company — but it is hardly literature.

Television has created some decent comedy series set in 21st-century organisations. America’s HBO has produced six seasons of Silicon Valley, the story of a fictional tech start-up called Pied Piper. It also made the superlative Succession, billed as a comedy but really a gothic melodrama. The BBC has sent up its own stupidity by commissioning three seasons of W1A — a witty sitcom set in the Beeb itself.

But it seems there is little appetite these days for writers who subvert the goings-on in corporate HQs. Possibly organisations are so sensible, and so afraid of litigation and fearful of their compliance department, that the shenanigans of the past never happen.

Yet companies still do foolish things and are often mismanaged. I have had visceral experience of corporate disaster with the collapse of Patisserie Valerie, which I chaired.

It may well be that business satire is yet another branch of comedy that has withered because it feels inappropriate today. Woke attitudes mean finding laughter in edgy, offensive content is not acceptable — in the office or elsewhere.

Many companies are almost puritanical in how little fun they permit in the workplace.

Alternatively, it might be that the joke has worn thin and the antics of business leaders are just boring — for both modern readers and writers.

This is a shame, because we can learn much from laughing at the shortcomings of business.