Preferring Not To


I’ve just read Bartleby the Scrivener which is a short story about a scrivener who refused to work saying “I’d prefer not to”.

It reminded me of some situations in the computer industry. I’ve never seen a single case where someone preferred not to work when everyone around them (colleagues and management) wanted them to work. But then the incidence of having an entire team and management wanting to work efficiently isn’t nearly as common as one might imagine.

In some cases it’s desired that someone not work, such as a former colleague who was hired as a sysadmin but did nothing but change backup tapes (a few hours work per week). Not having him login as root improved the general reliability of the servers but it was fortunate that we never needed to restore from backups…

One time I had a colleague who preferred to spend most of his time in the office searching the Internet for videos of street fights. I have often told colleagues that I would prefer them to work, but in the case of a guy who’s only hobby is street-fighting I decided to let it go.

Managing people can be difficult, particularly for someone who doesn’t like disagreements. Some managers that I’ve reported to seemed to prefer not to manage in an apparent attempt to avoid disputes. One time when I complained about a colleague not even having a suitable computer to permit doing any work a manager responded with the rhetorical question “what do you expect me to do?”. That manager didn’t do any annual reviews of staff for over a year, he only eventually did some reviews because he was told that his scheduled promotion was on hold until he got them done. I got the impression that at least two levels of management preferred not to work at that company.

Sometimes it just gets weird though, such as the occasion when I was the only member of a team and the manager who was supposedly managing no-one but me never seemed to have time to have a meeting with me. But he didn’t want me to bypass him and talk directly to other people in the company, so he preferred not to work and not to have anyone else do his job.

Most of the companies that I’ve worked for in a full-time capacity didn’t seem to have any effective technical interviews (note that I’ve mostly worked for financial companies and ISPs not free software companies). So it seems that anyone with minimal computer skills who wants a well paying job could just send out a CV to a bunch of recruiting agencies, get interviewed by enough companies to eventually hit one without a technical interview process and then find a job that doesn’t require work.


The Wikipedia page about Bartleby the Scrivener [2] suggests that Bartleby was depressed. I wonder how much of the lack of performance I’ve witnessed has been due to depression. There appears to be a strong correlation between work environments that cause depression and people preferring not to work.

Maybe managers should be considering how to make work less depressing to try and get more effective employees (in terms of quality and quantity of work). One example of this is the sysadmin team death spiral I’ve witnessed where no-one can automate solving problems (EG by cron jobs to manage resource usage and analysis tools to find minor problems before they become major problems) because everyone is dedicated to fixing things that break needlessly (EG systems crashing due to lack of disk space). When people start getting control over recurring problems and automating things then the work becomes increasingly about solving problems and less about implementing the same manual processes every day/week and it’s more fun and effective for everyone.

At the BoF on depression at LCA 2013 one delegate stated that many companies have people in HR who can arrange support for depressed employees. Apparently if you are depressed and you work for a company that’s large enough to have a HR department then it can be beneficial to talk to HR about it. That probably works well in the case where an employee is depressed but the company is working well. But in the case where the company isn’t working well it seems unlikely to help.

David Graeber wrote an interesting article about “Bullshit Jobs” [3]. He goes a bit far, I don’t think that late night pizza delivery is a bullshit job and actuaries are useful to society. But his points about the existence of useless jobs are reasonable.

Management Levels

I sometimes wonder whether there is some benefit in establishing social norms about working and then having management take little interest in how it happens. If a team works well together then management could just set deadlines (which would be negotiated with employees who know what’s possible) and let the team work out how to do it. Then instead of having one manager for each team of ~10 people who theoretically tracks what everyone is doing you could have one manager for a dozen teams who just tracks overall team performance – essentially remove a layer of management.

Valve is famous for having no formal management structure and for getting things done, unfortunately that apparently allows school-style cliques to block actions [4]. But I think that the Valve experiment is useful and provides some ideas that can be used by other companies. Maybe if instead of requiring consensus of the entire company for hiring decisions they only required consensus of the team things would have worked better.

Of course another down-side to such things is that hierarchical management can be good for avoiding discrimination and bullying. The article I cited about Valve compares it to high-school. It could be that Valve employees were all nice people who only hired other nice people. But if similar systems were implemented in many companies then some would surely end up being like a typical high school with all the bullying and mistreatment of minority groups that entails.

Michael O. Church wrote an interesting article in which he divides employees into four categories, “loser”, “clueless”, “psychopaths”, and “technocrats” (note that he didn’t invent the first three names) [5]. In his model the “clueless” category includes most middle-management. I think that there are some problems with Michael’s model and I’m not arguing for a “technocracy” (which is how this post might be interpreted in terms of his ideas). But I think he demonstrates some of the real problems in the way companies are managed and in his model the “losers” prefer not to work as long as they can get paid.


I don’t have any good solutions to these problems to offer. It seems that the best we can hope for is incremental change to make work less depressing, to have the minimal amount of management, and to avoid “bullshit jobs”.

3 thoughts on “Preferring Not To”

  1. Chris Frey says:

    “Maybe managers should be considering how to make work less depressing to try and get more effective employees…”

    This reminds me of the book “Out of the Crisis” by Deming. That one made a lot of sense.

  2. Philipp Kern says:

    I’d take comments of Mr Church with a pitcher of salt.

  3. etbe says:

    Philipp: I agree that there are some problems with Michael’s model. But I think he has some interesting ideas that can apply to some extent to some situations.

Comments are closed.