Bureaucratic Bellwethers & Barometers

Most of us would agree that our jobs are made less pleasant by all sorts of things we can’t control, from the fluorescent lights and gray cubicle felt to the cranky copier and the underpowered microwave. There are human problems, including bullies, liars, and people who watch soap operas on tiny TVs at their desk while eating the loudest, crunchiest pretzels in the universe. But we also have too many meetings, too many reports, too many forms, and too many emails that we don’t really need to read.

These are signs that your big company is less concerned about running a tight ship and more concerned about staying a big company. The more sloppiness and waste your company tolerates, the less it cares about actual work. That’s a bad thing. But there are other ways to measure how much common sense your company has sacrificed on the altar of bureaucratic nonsense.


An office is just like any other place inhabited by homo sapiens. We track in dirt, mud, snow, salt, and anything else we step in. We spill food and drinks at our desks or in the halls. But we also break coffee makers, spill toner cartridges, and make messes from all manners of industrial chemicals. This results in all manners of stains on the carpet, on chairs, on the one lonely table in the break room, on the kitchen counter, on the supply cabinet, and in the conference room. We even get mysterious stains on those foam tiles in the ceiling. Don’t get me started on the interior of the refrigerator and microwave.

So, have a stain in mind? How long has it been there? Is it a minor stain in an obvious place where your night-time cleaning crew is likely to take care of it, or no?  Maybe it’s been there for days, or weeks. In small offices, I’ve noticed that people are more likely to lend a hand to clean up their own messes as well as those made by others. But as the business grows, the mentality of “that’s not my job” kicks in and the messes sit until the cleaning crew arrives. But what if the cleaners don’t take care of it (because they don’t do windows, or something)?

The longer that filth sits and festers in your office, the more your co-workers have abandoned their senses and succumbed to the idea that magical bureaucrat fairies will swoop in and fix things. Most messes, no matter how unpleasant, can be cleaned in less than five minutes with a fist full of paper towels and a little water. Is your company all out of paper and water?


Offices are full of machines, from your slow-poke laptop to the cursed copier to the chairs in the conference room that slowly sink toward the floor while you sit in them. Now, fixing these problems requires a bit more effort and cost than just scrubbing a stain, but these are still very straightforward problems. The question is: How much red tape is there between you and the office supply store?

For example, when the microwave blows its fuse and no one can heat up their lunch, does your company (A) send someone with a company credit card across the street to the mall to buy a new one, or (B) submit a requisition form to the central office in another time zone to approve the purchase of a small appliance, and then order said appliance on the company-approved vendor Web site, and then wait 3-14 days for delivery?

The irony (and yes, this is a proper use of the word “irony”) is that as a company grows, acquiring more human capital and cash reserves, it becomes more rigid and more dysfunctional. (The irony is that acquiring more resources makes them less able to use those resources.) Small companies retain the flexibility and common sense to recognize problems and fix them quickly and effectively, while large companies (with all the resources in the world) are so conservative that they can’t make simple decisions without wasting huge amounts of time and effort in “decision-making” processes.

Human Resources

At small companies, there may not even be a director of human resources. You may have outsourced this role to a team somewhere else in town. But if your company has a couple dozen employees, there is a good chance you have someone in the office in charge of hiring, firing, insurance, and… well, actually, I have no idea what else they do.

Anyway, at a small and sensible company, it is likely (though not guaranteed) that your HR manager is someone with strong people skills who cares about keeping the office running smoothly. This may mean resolving interpersonal conflicts, organizing parties, encouraging people to help other teams or step into unfamiliar roles as needed, and helping employees deal with work-life issues by championing causes like telecommuting to the president.

But, as the staff grows (and you acquire a legal department), it becomes more likely that HR begins to care less about the people in the cubes and more about the people sitting in the board room. Instead of solving problems, they sweep them under the rug. Instead of organizing events, they prevent others from doing so (don’t want to risk offending someone by not inviting them, or not being diverse enough). Instead of helping employees to deal with management, they protect management from helpless employees.

I’m sure they think this makes sound financial sense. After all, it’s easier to replace a programmer or an accountant than a vice president… I guess. But, on the other hand, bad policies or leadership by one vice president can disgruntle dozens if not hundreds of people who do “real” work. So where’s the sense in that?

Paper Trails

This one is easy. Go through your email (and your paper mail, if you have any) and see how much correspondence you’ve received from management about the company (not about work, about the company). How often is there an announcement about new policies or new organizations, or even just name changes or “re-branding”? How often do they change your reports, or forms, or standard operation procedures to accomplish simple tasks?

If it’s more than once a year, you’re living in a bureaucracy!  Sensible companies have better things to do than rearrange patio furniture and experiment with the font on your name plate. Sensible companies work. Bureaucracies organize.


Well, what does it really matter how bureaucratic your company is? I mean, really, aren’t most companies fairly ensnared in red tape spiderwebs and papery snowdrifts? First, I can’t speak for most companies, but certainly not all are hopeless bureaucracies. Second, and far more important, the more bureaucratic and the less sensible your company becomes, the more likely it is that you, your career, and your future will begin to suffer.

Bureaucracies lose sight of reality as they struggle to control details. They invent systems and procedures to handle simple tasks so they no longer need to think clearly about those tasks. They build enormous, unwieldy organizations to accomplish tasks, and then invest more and more in justifying their own existence, rather than doing useful work. In the end, employees become casualties of systems that don’t respond to questions, that don’t solve problems, that don’t reward success, but always punish failure (even just perceived failure). And in the worst cases, the companies find themselves with too many people, too few ideas, too little money, and the handful of executives with enormous fortunes simply “retire,” leaving you to wonder what happened to your job.

So, to preserve your sanity, and your future, you may want to consult your bureaucratic bellwethers and barometers. It may not be too late to keep your company in sensible waters, but if you’re steaming toward the Big Pointy Rocks of Self Destruction, then you may want to quietly find yourself a lifeboat. After all, the Titanic was big and powerful too, and we all know how well that turned out.

 Post Tags
Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site


  1. Julius on the 12th March

    I enjoyed the entire post, it even provided me with sweet moments of laughter. I especially like the idea that although it may not be part of your job, taking care of stains and clutter in your workplace would make a difference in how you and your colleagues work. You’d also set a good example and influence the people around you to do the same.

Add a Comment