THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Bulls**t Jobs (Part 1 of ∞)

A surprisingly common part of my life: a patient asks me for a doctor’s note for back pain or something. Usually it’s a situation like their work chair hurts their back, and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain, and they have no doctor except me, and their insurance wants them to embark on a three month odyssey of phone calls and waiting lists for them to get one.

In favor of writing the note: It would take me all of five seconds. I completely believe my patients when they say their insurance is demanding the three month odyssey. Or sometimes they don’t have insurance and it would be a major financial burden for them to consult another doctor. Also, I’ve seen these other doctors and they have no objective test for back pain. 90% of the time they just have the patient stand in front of them, make whatever movement it is that hurts their back, ask the patient if it hurt their back, and when the patient says yes, the doctor says “That’s back pain all right, take some aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever”.

Against writing the note: I am a psychiatrist. I usually treat patients via telemedicine, which means that in many cases I have literally never seen their back. All I remember about back pain from medical school is that some people call it “lumbago”, a word that stuck in my head because it sounds like a cryptid or small African nation. I know even less about the ergonomics of chairs, or when people do vs. don’t require better ones. Any note I write about back pain and chair recommendations is going to be a total sham, bordering on medical fraud. I could demand my patient take time off work to come in for an examination, sometimes from several hours away, just so I can do the thing where they bend their back in front of me and tell me it hurts. But that’s kind of just passing the shamminess a little bit down the line in a way that seriously inconveniences them.

In other words: the request puts me in a position where I either have to lie, or have to refuse to give people help that they really need and that it would be trivial for me to provide. It’s one of my least favorite things, and I would appreciate any ethical advice the philosophers here have to give.

But my latest strategy is radical honesty. I write a note saying:

To whom it may concern:

I am a psychiatrist treating Mr. Smith. He tells me that he has chronic back pain (“lumbago”), and asks to be allowed to bring in his own chair to work.

Yours,
Dr. Alexander

It’s too soon to have a good sample size. But it seems to usually work. I think it works because there is nobody at Mr. Smith’s workplace – maybe nobody in the entire world – who’s really invested in preventing Mr. Smith from bringing a chair into work. Someone wrote up a procedure for employees using special chairs, so that they’re not the sort of cowboys who make decisions without procedures. Someone else feels like they have to enforce it, so that they’re not the sort of rebel who flouts procedures. But nobody cares.

I think a lot about David Graeber’s work on bulls**t jobs. In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable? I’ve been wondering about this for a long time, and I try to notice when something I’m doing is bulls**t. I guess this fits the bill. It seems to be an issue of people spending time and money to create and satisfy procedures that degenerate into rituals, so that they can look all procedural and responsible in front of – courts? regulators? bosses? investors? I’m not sure. But I do wonder how much of the economy is made of things like this.

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308 Responses to Bulls**t Jobs (Part 1 of ∞)

  1. Assaf Lavie says:

    Suggested edit:

    “He tells me that he has chronic back pain (“lumbago”), and my recommendation is to allow him to bring his own chair to work.”

    I mean, you probably can stand behind this recommendation, since it’s such a no brainer. Or, put another way, as long as you agree with the patient’s request and think that a medical opinion is completely irrelevant to the decision (when exactly do they teach office chair protocols in med school?), then it’s okay to voice your note in a way that not just echos the request but also supports it.

    Also:

    “I am a psychiatrist treating Mr. Smith for mental health issues”

    I suspect some patients would feel uncomfortable with this wording. It’s enough to say you are a psychiatrist treating the patient. The rest can be left to the reader to deduce. There’s really no need IMHO to explicitly state that he has mental health issues. How is that even relevant? My suspicion is that some people would fear the stigma associated with mental health issues and would rather not disclose that to their employers. Silly, of course, to dance around the fact you’re seeing a psychiatrist, but the dance doesn’t really hurt anyone too much.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If I say it’s my recommendation, I can be challenged in court, and if I don’t have great reasons behind the recommendation, I can lose lots of money or my license.

      There’s probably a better way to phrase it like “He tells me he has back pain, a condition which can require accommodations such as the ability to bring his own chair to work.”

      • russellsteapot42 says:

        That sounds great, though consider replacing ‘he tells me’ with ‘he has reported’ or something similarly official-sounding.

      • Calvin says:

        I think the tradeoff between this wording working more often (say, 1%), is worth the minuscule risk that it would ever get litigated or brought up in the context of your professional competency (0.0000001%).

        • Kenneth Duda says:

          Folks, it makes no difference what the note says from the company’s viewpoint. The only purpose of requiring the employee to get the note is to make it a little harder for employees to spend company money, i.e., to align employee incentives and company incentives better. It makes no difference (to the company) what the note says.

          Scott should avoid making any medical statements in the note. His approach of simply reporting obvious facts without any medical conclusions is the right approach. 0% of companies are going to care.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            It doesn’t even have anything to do with company money. They are bringing their own chair.

            It has more to do with the company staying in control of the office environment. “Why does Bob have a special chair? Why does Milton have a red stapler? Why does Janet have plants on her windowsill?” Depending on the environment, these trivial jealousies can spring into full-blown headaches, or, at least, that is the corporate fear.

            So they make policies to restrict employee freedom on what they can do in “their” cube.

            Plus there is the issue that when I have a $1200 chair and you have a $50 one, my chair might suddenly go missing because someone decided that they wanted a better chair.

          • Wency says:

            I think HBC is right about the reason for these rules. And Kenneth is right that no one really cares what the note says, they just want to create an obstacle to people trivially bringing these things in.

            If someone does care what the note says, I think it will be worth it for hearing Scott’s story about the incrementally stronger notes he sends until the company accepts one. Therefore I prefer he not future-proof this.

            If there weren’t suffering people on the line, I’d also be interested in seeing how far you can go and have the company still accept the note. How about just sentence fragments?

            “Mr. Smith back pain chair

            – Dr. Alexander”

          • pontifex says:

            Scott should go full caveman.

            “Me Doctor. He patient. This chair.”

            Signed with an X, of course.

          • herculesorion says:

            I wouldn’t even say it’s an obstacle to discourage activity; it’s more about the Token Gift Of Earth And Water, the agreement that the company is In Charge and that whatever happens in their building is with their knowledge and assent.

      • gbdub says:

        Just as Scott has to do bullshit work to carefully craft his letter, so does the company have to require the letter. All for the same reason: CYA against litigious bad actors.

        Nobody cares that much about Bob having his own chair if he finds it more comfortable. Until Bob falls off his self-provided chair and sues the company for failing to prevent him from using it. So they have the documentation that lets them say, “he claimed a needed accommodation that we were legally required to provide, not our fault”.

        • Matt M says:

          Yep. Virtually every “bullshit” requirement can be traced to one simple thing – protection from litigation.

          Want to fix this problem? The answer is tort reform. Not a communist takeover.

          • DragonMilk says:

            I really don’t get what is standing in the way of at least making it easier for the judges to award the winning side their attorneys’ fees from the losing side.

            The way I understand it, unless there’s a specific statute that allows it, attorneys’ fees are not recoverable, and even then it’s a high burden of proof to have it be frivolous.

            What’s so wrong with leaving it at judges’ discretion that an amount up to the actual attorneys’ fees can be awarded to the victor? I’d imagine plenty of judges are tired of dealing with patent trolls and egregious trial lawyers but have to hear out every complaint that comes forward anyway without a good way of punishing wasted time and stress.

          • Mary says:

            What’s so wrong with leaving it at judges’ discretion that an amount up to the actual attorneys’ fees can be awarded to the victor?

            At judges’ discretion — or lack thereof. There have been spectacular examples of the later.

            This is in fact a major reason for regulation outside that arena.

          • fortaleza84 says:

            I really don’t get what is standing in the way of at least making it easier for the judges to award the winning side their attorneys’ fees from the losing side.

            There are a couple problems with this. First, it has the potential to generate endless satellite litigation over attorneys fees. Second, it gives a big advantage to large, wealthy players who are in court a lot and can afford to risk regular adverse attorney fee awards.

            Even meritorious claims have a decent chance of failing for various reasons; fear of an adverse attorney fee award would discourage a lot of these claims from being brought.

          • thad says:

            @ DragonMilk

            How do you calculate attorney’s fees for a plaintiff paying a contingent fee? How do you collect from someone who actually suffered an injury and can’t work? You might add some deterrence, but probably not much

          • deciusbrutus says:

            The lawyer of the plaintiff paying a contingent fee provides the court with their record of hours spent and standard rates, and the court awards based on those numbers, if they are reasonable.

            Same as when the plaintiff is paying on a retainer basis.

          • _bla_ says:

            I don’t think that protection from litigation is the true reason behind bullshit jobs. Damages accepted by courts are significantly lower in most places outside the US, however, Bullshit jobs seem to exist at similar rates in most developed countries.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @Matt M

            I’m Not sure if you’re holodomor-baiting or if I just vastly underestimate the insanity of the american legal system.

            1. How often (ever?) is someone successfully sued for something like this, even if they don’t take legal precautions?

            2. Can’t the employee could just sign a waver? (after all, they probably sit on the same kind of fucking chair at home)

          • Matt M says:

            I’m not a lawyer, BUT

            1. If by “something like this” you mean “problems relating to bringing their own chair” then probably quite rarely. If instead, you mean “something as equally ludicrous and unlikely and difficult to forecast as someone bringing their own chair” than all the freaking time.

            2. My understanding is that waivers, in and of themselves, are not legally enforceable. They help you in court argue that the person understood the risks, etc., but you can’t just have someone sign a waiver saying “you agree my actions might kill you” and then kill them and say “welp, he signed the waiver.”

        • fortaleza84 says:

          Generally speaking, you are wrong. In most American jurisdictions and workplaces, Bob would not be able to sue the company due to the workman’s compensation system. His remedy would be to file a claim for workman’s compensation regardless of what chair is in use.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yes, but the fear of a litigious bad actor filing a frivolous worker’s comp claim is functionally very similar to the fear of a bad actor filing a frivolous lawsuit. Indeed in some ways it’s a bigger fear, unless the claimant in a worker’s comp claim has to pay significant legal fees beyond time spent filling out paperwork in order to file.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            A frivolous worker’s comp claim is fraud. Sending someone to prison is a much bigger threat than putting a lien against their future earnings.

          • fortaleza84 says:

            There’s one important difference between workman’s comp claims and tort claims. In a workman’s comp claim, it doesn’t matter if the employer was negligent or not.

            So for a hypothetical employee who files an injury claim against his employer for allowing him to use his own chair, it won’t make a difference if the employer required a doctor’s note or not. It won’t make a difference if the employee sneaked his own chair into work or if he got full approval from the CEO.

            If his chair fails at work and he gets injured, he’s got a solid workman’s comp claim regardless of whose negligence caused the injury. And even if the employer did nothing wrong and it was 100% the employee’s own negligence.

            The upshot of this is that it won’t help the employer at all if they can produce a doctor’s note in the workman’s comp proceeding showing that the worker was permitted to use his own chair due to doctor’s orders. It’s simply irrelevant.

            So the idea that the employer would require a doctor’s note to protect itself from injury lawsuits is not very credible.

            On a broader note, one problem with the law is that a lot of it is based on common sense. As a result, it’s common for laypeople to think they know the law a lot better than they actually do.

          • DeservingPorcupine says:

            Of course Bob can sue. You can sue anybody for anything with a couple of hundred bucks. So, even in the best case scenario, where the judge dismisses it caustically at his first chance, the company will have already probably spent in the low thousands just to have a lawyer write up a document and show up to court. Then, since judges in the lower state courts can suck a lot and not infrequently go against the letter of the law, it’s always a roll of the dice that it drags on. Every new court date is going to mean at least hundreds or low thousands of dollars.

      • finnydo says:

        You just figured out why they have the procedure. If the dude’s chair is defective somehow and he gets hurt, that’s an OSHA-recordable workplace injury that affects the company. By getting he doctor’s note, they can offload the liability for the accident to the employee. Your note would probably not be effective for this, if anyone ever really challenged it, but the reason nobody cares is because nobody really understands he reasoning behind the policy.

        My workplace does something similar, but we don’t let them bring in their own chairs. When they get the note we just spring for a better chair.

      • James Miller says:

        How about “A chair that would reduce his level of pain would benefit him.” If ever called on this, you could testify that based on your expert knowledge chronic pain is a bad thing for people.

        • Jiro says:

          I would think this falls under “computer geeks act as though the entire world is run by a computer. It isn’t.”

          If you write in a way which would be taken by 99% of people to mean that you’re making a medical decision, a judge would have no problem interpreting it to mean that you’re making a medical decision, regardless of whether the literal worlds say that. Laws consider intent and implication all the time and you can’t escape them with the excuse “I didn’t literally say that”.

          • Tatterdemalion says:

            I’m not going to say that you’re wrong, but I am going to say that if you’re right then that scares the hell out of me – the idea that I can’t avoid being prosecuted for saying something just by not saying it is a worrying one.

          • James Miller says:

            Actually, I’m a graduate of a good law school (although I’ve never practiced law) and I can’t program beyond a high school level.

          • Jiro says:

            the idea that I can’t avoid being prosecuted for saying something just by not saying it is a worrying one.

            You still have to say it. It’s just that saying it by implication counts.

            (And the answer to “what if I don’t know how to avoid saying it by implication?” is the same as the answer to “what if I don’t know how to avoid saying it literally?”or “what if I mistakenly think the words ‘put all the bank’s money in this bag or I blow your head off’ are really a harmless greeting?”)

          • JulieK says:

            I’m pretty sure there was an xkcd carton about this.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Great. Which medical decision is “A chair that would reduce his level of pain would benefit him.”? Is there some doctor out there who will take the stand as an expert witness and say “I have reviewed this specific case and my medical opinion is that ‘A chair that would reduce his level of pain would benefit him.’ violates the standard of care and is not a reasonable medical decision to make in this case.”?

            Or are they going to say some variant of “That’s not a medical decision, it’s mealy-mouthed weasel words”.

            Even if everyone agrees that it’s a medical conclusion, it has to be proven (beyond a preponderance of the evidence, in a civil suit), that the medical conclusion is unreasonable, according to medical standards.

          • MostlyHamless says:

            The XKCD for Jiro’s “Bank robbery was a greeting” example is the Humpty Dumpty 1860.

            It’s not apropos the James Miller phrase, where the words do mean what they say. That phrase is just a truism, which states nothing about the magnitude of Smith’s pain nor about the properties of any chair Smith might bring.

      • DragonMilk says:

        Totally fine as is. You’re simply stating facts and will be safe

      • deciusbrutus says:

        ” He reports that he has back pain and that the pain is exaggerated by his work conditions, specifically by the chair he is required to use. He reports that the pain caused by his own chair is significantly less. If the type of chair that [patient] uses is not one of his Essential Job Duties, it is my understanding that allowing him to bring his own chair would be a Reasonable Accommodation for the underlying medical condition “lumbago”. ”

        If you clearly identify yourself as a physician, and then give legal advice about the patient, I think that you can mitigate the risk.

    • johan_larson says:

      Or maybe,

      I am a psychiatrist treating Mr. Smith. He tells me that he has chronic back pain (“lumbago”). I believe him. He asks to be allowed to bring in his own chair to work.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I believe him.

        The belief would need to be well founded, though.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Someone saying “I have back pain” is hella strong evidence that they have back pain.

          • sclmlw says:

            Pain is one of those weird subjective concepts we try to objectively study. There are ways you can do that when you’re looking at population-level data. (For example, does this drug reduce pain vs. placebo?) But on an individual level it really comes down to personal reporting. Because it is not objectively verifiable.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            There are some levels of back pain that are objectively falsifiable.

            For example: “For the last three months I continuously have so much back pain that I am not able to stand up, walk, or lift my arms above my head” can be objectively falsified by observing them play basketball.

            P(has back pain|reports back pain)/P(has back pain) is a pretty big number; even if half of all back reports are actually false, it’s 1.2 (based on internet saying 80% of people have back pain; and 50% of reports are false, P(A|B) is .5, P(A) is .4, and .5/.4 is 1.25.

            Okay, if half of all back pain is fake, then it’s light-moderate evidence. And I don’t have any way other than random guesses to estimate the fake rate.

          • sclmlw says:

            I don’t disagree that you can measure back pain using statistical techniques, but I still don’t think you can measure it on an individual level. The example you give isn’t really measuring back pain, either directly or indirectly. It’s verifying self-reported limitations that are claimed to be based on the back pain.

            If you’re looking at fraud or something, there are ways of measuring that individually. “You said your back pain prevents you from engaging in prolonged physical activity; the Fitbit data says THAT was a lie!” That doesn’t mean you have no back pain, it just means the back pain isn’t causing the reported limitations.

            Here’s a good analogy: you go in and report to your physician you’re not breathing well. They look at your FEV1 and diagnose you with asthma. However, if they had instead randomly tested your FEV1 they would likely have come to the same diagnosis, and asked you whether you are breathing okay. Same for sleep apnea, cancer, etc. The diagnosis doesn’t solely rely upon self-reported information. However, with something like back pain that’s pretty much all we have to go on.

        • Matt M says:

          Perhaps the “I believe him” is necessary because once you out yourself as treating someone for “mental health issues” the person’s credibility might be in question. “I am his psychiatrist and I believe he is telling the truth” is an endorsement not of the existence of back pain specifically, but of the person’s credibility in general.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Also, while it may be objectively true that almost everyone who complains of back pain is feeling the pain…

            There are surely people out there who believe that most people who complain of pain are just stupid whiners and we should stop coddling them. Some of them will retain this belief even in the face of a doctor’s note, but others will acknowledge the doctor’s note as a reality and stop making trouble.

        • CheshireCat says:

          The belief would need to be well founded, though.

          Why? If someone were to try and litigate against Scott, what legal mechanism would require Scott’s belief to be well-founded? He’s not making recommendations or using medical privilege; he’s just writing a letter, as a physician, which states relevant facts. Seems pretty legally airtight to me.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @CheshireCat:
            Because writing the letter an representing himself as the physician of the patient implies that his belief is informed by his professional knowledge. It ceases to be a statement of simple personal belief.

            IANAL, but I believe this to be correct. If you write a letter to saying you believe a structure to be sound and sign at as “John Doe, Structural Engineer” you are implicitly making a statement about engineering.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            The phrase I understand to have that meaning is “It is my professional opinion that…”

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I see Scott has dropped “mental health” from his note, but why even say that he’s a psychiatrist, rather than just saying he’s a doctor? Why encourage the reader to deduce that it’s for mental health? Didn’t he previously write about providing notes for patients who had been held for days in a mental hospital and leave off the mental part?

    • Robert Jones says:

      If I began a letter “I am a barrister” (which I am), I wouldn’t go on to say “my recommendation is X” unless the recommendation was within my professional competence. It would be misleading to assert my professional status and then make an unrelated recommendation.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Was it misleading when you began a comment by identifying yourself as a barrister and then made an observation which is unrelated to that?

        Is saying that it would be misleading within your professional competence?

  2. Eric Rall says:

    When I’ve encountered this sort of seemingly-empty procedural work in my career, I’ve referred to it as “warding off evil spirits”. In general, the pattern seems to be that there’s a plausible failure mode being guarded against. The procedure guarding against it is rather silly and poorly-tuned to address the actual issue, but it more-or-less gets the job done, and coming up with a better-tuned procedure is a non-trivial problem which no one person has the information, power, and incentives to solve.

    In this case, letting anyone bring in their own chairs would be a bit of a pain for the company to manage: the company would have to keep track of which chairs are theirs vs which belong to employees, so they don’t accidentally steal someone’s personal chair, and there are probably some liability concerns as well (say, Bob brings in a chair that’s stuffed with asbestos, and his coworker Carol sues the company for negligently exposing her to a hazardous material). But the opposite extreme runs into problems with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires the company to make reasonable accommodations for legitimate medical needs.

    The “Doctor’s Note” rule addresses all three of these problems: it minimizes the burden to the company’s facilities team of keeping track of employee-owned chairs (since the trivial inconvenience of getting a doctor’s note screens out all but the most motivated personal-chair-bringers), it fulfills the company’s requirements ADA responsibilities (sure, we’ll accommodate your legitimate medical needs: we just need basic documentation of those needs), and it mitigates any potential liability exposure (we weren’t negligent: we had to let Bob bring in his chair because he had a well-documented medical need that we were legally obligated to accommodate). It’s silly (especially since in practice, it reduces to “you can’t bring in your own chair unless you really want to”), but it gets the job done.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Thinking about it a little more, I think a lot of “warding off evil spirits” activity seems to be driven by a combination of exporting trivial inconveniences, covering your ass against risk, and complying with externally-imposed mandates (government regulations, union rules, contractual obligations, and dictates by upper-level management).

      • Bugmaster says:

        I would go one step further, and argue that the evil spirits actually exist in this case. As you said, letting everyone bring in their own chair is a policy that is virtually guaranteed to create some sort of minor trouble — due to people taking the wrong chair, injuring themselves or someone else with the chair, bringing a chair that is noisy or otherwise disruptive, etc. None of these problems are going to be life-threatening… but… they are going to be massively career-threatening for whomever’s in charge. For example, if Alex gets hurt because he stubbed his toe on Bob’s replica Game of Thrones chair, Alex can sue the company, and then everyone is screwed. Avoiding this situation is worth the sacrifice.

        • massivefocusedinaction says:

          Now I’m realizing that my “back pain” can only be as aged by an office chair that’s a small copy of the iron throne. Wonder if I can find a doctor to write that note?

        • Deiseach says:

          Precisely. People take umbrage at the smallest thing, and if they see Joe is allowed to bring in his own chair, they will immediately be up in arms over why can’t they bring in their own desk or coffee machine or move nearer to/further from the window. Saying “Joe has a doctor’s cert” takes the heat off the immediate superior (at least, it reduces the complaining to how sly Joe is to fool a doctor that he needs a special chair). And the lawsuits fear is very apt – if Joe brings in his own chair, and it collapses under him, then if he gets hurt it’ll be his personal injury lawyer asking “but don’t you have ergonomics recommendations in your company about suitable chairs for prolonged periods sitting in place at the desk? don’t you have certified proper office chairs? by permitting my client to bring in an unsuitable chair that was not up to spec and was not rated for prolonged use/his weight, you were negligent”.

          Making people jump through the hoops of “you need a doctor’s note” sorts out those who really need it (or are determined enough to keep on faking it) from those who are only chancing their arm.

          • sclmlw says:

            That chair may be “certified”, but it’s all wrong. Two major problems stick out from a cursory glance:

            1. It’s made of leather. A good office chair – meant for sitting for long periods – would have mesh on the seat and back. Human sweat accumulates during long sitting periods, so a leather chair will exacerbate that problem.
            2. The armrests are attached to the base of the chair. This would make sense if arms were attached to the base of humans, but they’re not. Armrests that are attached to the back of the chair (similar to human arms) would be much more functional.

            A few years ago I got a mesh office chair with rationally-designed armrests, and it makes a difference. But then, I have a home office, so I get to make my own decisions.

          • phileas says:

            Right! I’d classify it as a form of “Trial by Ordeal”, transplanted into a modern corporate setting.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_by_ordeal

            Force people to go through an ordeal to prove sincerity. It’s a practice with a long historical lineage.

            Incidentally, how Scott is responding is also what people now think priests did in the old days:

            https://aeon.co/ideas/why-the-trial-by-ordeal-was-actually-an-effective-test-of-guilt

            “How could an ordeal-administering priest make boiling water innocuous to an innocent defendant’s flesh? By making sure that it wasn’t actually boiling.”

            Maybe the proliferation of b.s. jobs is the result of cost of requests becoming too low.
            Necessitating ever more Trial by Ordeals to prove sincerity.

      • albatross11 says:

        These exercises sometimes happen even when the evil spirits you’re warding off are entirely imaginary, and very often happen when the ritual you’re using to ward them off wouldn’t even work on these particular evil spirits. See the TSA for about one gazillion examples.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Arguably, the TSA’s rituals are in fact working very well. They are reassuring commuters that everything is ok; deterring any pranksters, trolls, and crazies who are not actual terrorists; and mitigating any liability the airlines and the airport would have in the (unlikely yet highly costly) event of a real terrorist attack (since TSA will have to share the blame).

          Yes, the TSA is almost completely ineffective at deterring actual terrorists, but that’s not its job. In fact, I’m not even convinced that it is at all possible to deter actual terrorists — at least, not without either shutting down air travel, or turning the airport into a giant, non-metaphorical prison (thus effectively shutting down air travel). Attack is always orders of magnitude easier than defence.

          • herculesorion says:

            Cockpit doors do plenty to deter actual terrorists.

            But you’re certainly correct that the TSA works to deter crazy people who see stories about crashing planes and figure that *this* is their chance to make the history books.

    • Fitzroy says:

      The “Doctor’s Note” rule addresses all three of these problems

      I don’t think it does.

      You haven’t mitigated your potentially liability at all if you let Bob bring in his own chair. He may have a medical need for a non-standard chair, but you still have a duty as an employer to ensure that chair is safe for workplace use.

      I’d also be surprised if this met ADA responsibilities. I can only speak from a UK point of view, but over here expecting the employee to make their work space suitable at their own expense would absolutely not be considered a reasonable adjustment.

      The way to actually mitigate those risks would be for the employer to provide the non-standard chair. This has a cost associated and that would be the reason for documentation articulating the need – justification of expenditure.

      I wonder if ‘doctor’s note to bring in your own chair’ is a mutation from an original policy of ‘doctor’s note to justify the company buying you your own chair’.

      • sclmlw says:

        Maybe we’re trying to solve the wrong problems. Perhaps the HR motivation is to reduce competition, infighting, and jealousy. Sort of like having a “dress code” type solution for chairs. If anyone can bring in their own chair, you might have a competition for best chair, chair-related pranks, chair theft, etc.

        Requiring a doctor’s note would mostly solve these problems. “That’s a nice chair!” “Yeah, I need the extra lumbar support for my back pain.” “Sorry to hear that.” If it’s a medical need, you have an excuse to have a better chair than everyone else, and there’s a higher moral threshold you have to cross if you’re going to prank/steal someone’s medically-required seating arrangement. Plus there’s a fear of getting into trouble if you mess with someone’s ostensible medical needs.

      • JulieK says:

        The “Doctor’s Note” rule addresses all three of these problems.

        I don’t think it does.

        It reduces the number of employees who bring their own chair or other paraphernalia, so it reduces the risk of the problems arising.

    • bean says:

      One of the actual evil spirits is probably people borrowing chairs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to talk to someone and snagged the chair of the person who sat across from them who was out. If that chair is personally owned, and the owner takes umbrage because it’s an Ultimate Gaming Throne 3000 and has in-seat air conditioning, then there’s a horrible mess. But that chair is hard to justify for medical reasons, and ergonomic chairs are not usually the sort of thing people get worked up over.

    • finnydo says:

      People bringing in their own chairs is also actually a workplace safety issue. If people bring in defective chairs that cause injuries, then they could get into some legal problems related to them. This policy minimizes the danger, and gives them cover if the worker in question is injured.

      It asondefinitely mutated from “company buys nice chair” when a bunch of people decided to get the doctor’s note for a nice chair. My company buys the chair, and will probably never change from that because of the way it makes revenue from costs by law, and A LOT of people get the pricy chair.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        True story, we just replaced 500 cafeteria chairs, someone slipped off one, and we had to replace all 500 chairs. The 500 “defective” chairs have been sitting in the parking lot for the last 6 weeks. Don’t even think about taking one of those home!

        • Plumber says:

          Every month at the building that I do most of my work we have to order a dumpster and go around the hallways and look for loose chairs to throw away.

          The cops in particular are always throughout out chairs.

    • matthewravery says:

      I like that you tried to think through why this policy could be in place, and I think your reasoning is sound. Folks often underestimate the deterrent effect of trivial inconveniences in how most people live their everyday life. IMO it’s one of the more underappreciated departures from strict rationality humans evince daily.

      But even if we don’t buy this explanation, didn’t we just have a discussion in an open thread about Chesterton’s Fence? And yet here’s a thread where most folks are saying, “I don’t understand this rule. It must be bullshit and should be discarded immediately.”

      • pontifex says:

        Chesterton’s Fence brings me to the opposite conclusion here. I’ve worked for almost a dozen companies at this point. I don’t recall any of them having rules against bringing in your own chair. If a company wants to be different and put restrictions on this, I would want to know why.

        The explanations people are coming up with here are interesting, but some of them feel a little forced. To me, the simplest explanation is just control-freakery on the part of management.

        We need to be careful about applying Chesterton’s Fence. At a minimum, you should know how long the thing you are trying to defend has existed and how widespread it has been. Otherwise it just becomes the argument from authority– the opposite of what rationalism is about.

        • A number of people have pointed out that the request was for permission to bring in his own chair, not to have the employer buy one for him. I wonder if the employer has a policy designed for the latter situation and it got applied inappropriately to the former.

          • pontifex says:

            That’s a possibility. It’s also possible that the employee wanted to have the company buy the chair, but explained it to Scott it as wanting permission to bring in his own chair in order to make it seem like a smaller request.

            Without actually talking to the people involved, we’re just playing “telephone.” Which is amusing, but unlikely to get at the truth.

            This whole thing about people blindly following arcane policies reminded me of this: http://dilbert.com/strip/2004-08-10

    • Ghillie Dhu says:

      Replace “evil spirits” with the semantically-equivalent “lawyers” and you’ve hit the bullseye.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      It DOESN’T fulfill the company’s basic ADA responsibilities: If the employee needs an orthopedic chair to mitigate back pain and the cost of the chair isn’t an unreasonable burden on the company as a whole, the company is required to provide an accommodation that works (although not necessarily the employee’s preferred accommodation) , not merely allow the employee to bring it from home.

      Allowing the employee to bring their preferred accommodation from home is one possible result of the interactive process, but not the only legal one.

      (Source: I’m not a lawyer, but I did extensive research into the ADA requirements when I took the government to court for forcing me into medical retirement for being diagnosed with ADHD.)

  3. j r says:

    I call bullsh*t on Graeber’s work on bullsh*t jobs. He’s one step up from Illuminati conspiracy theories. And it’s not that I don’t believe that some non-trivial percentage of workers spend some non-trivial percentage of their time doing less than fully productive work. It’s that I don’t Graeber is any position to decide who is and who is not engaged in bullsh*t.

    The more likely answers lie in the fact that institutions trend towards developing rules and fostering a culture of compliance for those rules because people are, by and large, risk adverse. Few people want to stick their neck out and take responsibility for decisions, so the remain under the institutional cover of the rules. And in certain situations, that is the absolute correct thing to do. The problem is knowing what situations are and are not the correct one. My guess is that is where so much of the wasted effort lies and from the outside that process look a lot like bullsh*t.

    ETA: I should add that I do believe that compliance culture is also about control as much as it is about risk aversion. Some people really do like having arbitrary authority over others and get utility from wielding it in capricious ways. However, contra Graeber, this petty authoritarianism isn’t being directed by some cabal of cigar smoking capitalists. It’s almost always the result of a poor management culture and not a deliberate management strategy.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      It’s that I don’t Graeber is any position to decide who is and who is not engaged in bullsh*t.

      My understanding is his work is based on surveying people about their opinions on the worth of their work.

      • j r says:

        This is from the Wikipedia entry:

        A YouGov poll based on his essay found that 37 percent of those surveyed thought that their jobs did not contribute meaningfully to the world. Graeber subsequently solicited hundreds of testimonials of bullshit jobs and revised his case into a book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

        I haven’t read the book, only the essay so I won’t pretend to speak authoritatively. But that doesn’t sound like the most rigorous methodology. It sounds a lot more like someone who has decided on an answer and is looking for anecdotal support.

        • Ursus Arctos says:

          At a rough pass the person doing the job seems like a reasonable authority on whether it is worthwhile.

          If anything the bias will run in the opposite direction.

          • j r says:

            If what Graeber is doing is offering a subjective interpretation of why some people don’t feel great about their jobs, then fine. There’s definitely an audience for that.

            What I call BS on is this part:

            The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger…

            If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.

            There are a whole bunch of stolen bases there.

          • Aapje says:

            @Ursus Arctos

            At a rough pass the person doing the job seems like a reasonable authority on whether it is worthwhile.

            How so? The reason why you get paid for the job is because other people want the work to be done more than you. The very fact that you get paid suggests that you don’t find it as worthwhile as others. Situations where the opposite is true are generally called ‘hobbies.’

            Furthermore, a major change during the industrial revolution was that artisans were replaced by specialists who only created part of a product and who may never even see or understand how their work results in a completed product. Such specialists may see their work as fairly useless, especially when they don’t produce or assemble an end product, but merely an intermediate product that has no use on its own.

          • baconbits9 says:

            At a rough pass the person doing the job seems like a reasonable authority on whether it is worthwhile.

            If anything the bias will run in the opposite direction.

            I don’t think this is a given. If you look at the linked essay he starts with a former friend of his

            Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

            This is not a guy in a position to naturally appreciate if corporate lawyers are a necessity or a waste. He attempted to make a living as a musician, got close enough to taste it and then bailed to become a lawyer. Whatever the circumstances around that decision were he isn’t predisposed to think highly of lawyering.

            As a direct note on the information presented- why did the musician go this route? There aren’t many careers that will preclude playing music on the side as effectively as being a corporate lawyer. Between the time and financial costs of law school, and the hours generally expected out of law school and the hours expected to advanced it is likely to become either or. This is not a necessity, just from people I know, my father in law who started with his wife a small cleaning company (never more than 20 employees) managed to keep his music hobby and now (in his 70s) plays regularly with a jazz group that gets paying gigs semi regularly. A distant cousin who works to supplement her music career, lives in a cheap place near a train bridge (where no one complains about their loud practice) and regularly plays on weekends. A married acquaintance who had a kid and did part time work (yoga instructor, house cleaning) while trying out for theatrical parts (eventually “making it” in local productions landing enough recurring roles to drop the part time work). A married couple who sing and play in a band on weekends, husband in IT wife a stay at home mom and home schooler.

            Stories like this are meant to wrench at something in you, where there is X and then it is taken away, where the world had something beautiful and now it is gone. The reality is that this guy choose to be a corporate lawyer instead of any of a number of things that would have allowed him to both support his family and still spend some time on his passion/talent. Presenting it this way makes it appear as if ‘society’ is pushing the guy in one way, when the individual was making the choice himself.

          • onyomi says:

            @Aapje

            I agree with the second half of your comment, but re:

            The reason why you get paid for the job is because other people want the work to be done more than you… Situations where the opposite is true are generally called ‘hobbies.’

            I think there is an important difference between finding one’s own job to be the most personally fulfilling thing one could be doing with one’s time, absent a need for money to do other, more fulfilling things, and believing one’s job serves some useful social function.

            For example, there’s no reason someone could not e.g. be a policeman, believe that policing is important and necessary work, and yet also believe that, were he to win the lottery tomorrow, he would quit policing and sail around the world.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            Like most pop-Marxist class-interest fables, Graeber’s assumes an unlikely amount of altruism on the part of capitalists. if I’m a capitalist, I may be in favor of “maintaining the power of finance capital”– but am I enough in favor to expand what would otherwise be profit on a bunch of employees who are of no use to me, in order to produce a benefit for a bunch of other capitalists, including my competitors?

            If only there were some super-popular-on-SSC metaphor I could invoke to illustrate the need for epistemic caution in evaluating things which appear at first glance to be useless!

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            @j r
            Agreed entirely about Graeber’s conspiracy theory. Among other things, that would make the class-warfare free-riding problem really acute–like any corporation could cut their labor costs in half by defecting. (ETA: Zrimsek ninja’d me on this point)

            @baconbits9
            I think you were asking rhetorically, but it’s clear to me why that young man chose law: he wants to be Successful (by standards like the ones I’m familiar with). A musician with songs on the radio is Successful, and a lawyer is Successful. Those other examples you listed probably aren’t (the IT one might be, but I’m guessing the guy didn’t have STEM skills)

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think you were asking rhetorically, but it’s clear to me why that young man chose law: he wants to be Successful (by standards like the ones I’m familiar with). A musician with songs on the radio is Successful, and a lawyer is Successful. Those other examples you listed probably aren’t (the IT one might be, but I’m guessing the guy didn’t have STEM skills)

            The only one who wasn’t “successful” is probably the distant cousin. My father in law is looking at a nice retirement, owns multiple properties and helped put his 4 kids through college. The former yoga teacher is doing well, obviously her spouse’s income helps but she is now being paid to do something that she was doing for free or at cost for years and is at a point where she can choose between potential roles.

            What I think the musician turned lawyer choose was prestige, and that was not picked by society, but by himself.

          • albatross11 says:

            Aapje:

            A lot of bullshit jobs are:

            a. Bullshit in the big-picture view, because you can see that really, what you’re doing doesn’t accomplish any useful function.

            b. Not bullshit in the local view, because your boss or legal department or PR department sees some reason to have someone doing your job that makes sense to them.

            Doing something that doesn’t make anyone safer but complies with safety regulations/makes the insurance company happier/keeps OSHA off our back is both a bullshit job (big-picture view) and a valuable job that needs doing (local view).

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            @baconbits
            Yeah, what I was trying to get at by capitalizing ‘Successful’ was basically prestige. The extent to which he chose that, vs. society mandating it for him, is subtle, depending on what exactly his contact surfaces with ‘society’ are–there could be a lot of pressure from, say, his family.

            Mostly bothering to reply to make it clear that I didn’t mean to insult any of those people you mentioned–in my view they’re probably all more lower-case successful at life than Graeber’s lawyer friend.

          • J Mann says:

            @baconbits

            Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

            To add on to your point, that can mean a lot of things. It could mean:
            (1) we should reform the laws so that corporations can deliver products and services without hiring so many lawyers; (i.e., move towards lassez-faire capitalism) or
            (2) we should reform the laws so that corporations can’t function at all and lawyers can work for other people; (i.e., move towards socialism) or
            (3) corporations do need lawyers to issue securities, comply with regulations, etc., but this particular guy isn’t contributing very much to that.

            Only #3 really fits my understanding of a b*llsh*t job. If you’re a brilliant potato chip inventor, but you think your job is b*llsh*t because you don’t know why people like potato chips, that’s different than if your job is to count all the potatoes in the factory and then shred your reports.

          • Deiseach says:

            Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract

            That’s important too; there’s lots of small time musicians out there trying to make it big. This guy may have “brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world” but not enough to have them buy his albums in sufficient numbers to be worth the cost to the record company. Graeber himself didn’t even recognise “guy I heard on the radio” as “guy I knew in school”. The corporate lawyer job may have been bullshit, but so was the musician gig as judged by the people he was trying to sell his songs to. ‘Anyone can do this law job and it shouldn’t really even exist’ is the same as ‘Anyone can sing and play an instrument, lots of people do it for free even, and my record contract really shouldn’t even exist’ as far as this guy went. There are people who sing at parties and other social events who are nearly good enough to go pro, there are street buskers, there are people who supplement their gigs with part-time work – there are an awful lot of other sources of “social meaningfulness and contributing to the world” when it comes to music and this guy was just one more of the pack, and nothing distinguished him enough to enable him to have a full-time job as a musician that could support him (as distinct from enabling him to achieve emotional/psychic satisfaction from the idea of being a ‘creative’ not a mundane business-grinding type). Like I said, I’ve a family on my father’s side full of these creative types – that kind of talent is ten a penny, Professor Graeber.

        • Hoopdawg says:

          >I haven’t read the book

          That doesn’t sound like the most rigorous methodology. It sounds a lot more like someone who has decided on an answer.

          Snark aside, his case does not require and indeed does not allow the amount of rigor you’re apparently demanding of him. Back to snark, when someone stands up and shouts “Hey, look at all those cases of [thing] around, we should be investigating and researching [thing]!” and your reply is “But you only have anecdata instead of research, checkmate anarchists!”, allow me to posit you’re not exactly motivated by the pursuit of truth and reason.

          • j r says:

            See the comment above. If Graeber wants to wax poetically about how people don’t like their or feel motivated by their jobs, great. I don’t care enough to have a response.

            It’s the idea that he has something meaningful to say about larger economic trends or about management or industrial organization, that’s where I am doubtful. And like I said, since I didn’t read the book I am only doubtful as opposed to sure.

        • Freddie deBoer says:

          I think you should read books before judging them. And I have personal beef with Graeber.

          • j r says:

            As I keep saying in my comments, I’m not judging the book. I’m calling BS on the theory expressed in the essay.

            It’s entirely possible that the book is something that the essay is not. Maybe it’s a really good ethnographic study of why people feel dissatisfaction with their jobs.

            I will reserve my judgment until I read it. But I think that I’m still allowed to have an opinion on the essay.

          • And I have personal beef with Graeber.

            As do I, if by “personal beef” you mean “reason to be skeptical of.”

            But it goes back to the Usenet era, some decades ago.

          • Michael Watts says:

            I think you should read books before judging them.

            This is one of those things that sounds good but is clearly wrong. There are too many books for that to work. And how would you decide whether to read a book in the first place?

            The more realistic view was expressed very well by Andrew Gelman:

            I can’t really criticize the guy for slamming my book without having read it. After all, I think the autobiography of Uri Geller and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are almost certainly full of crap, but I haven’t ever read a page of either.

      • flame7926 says:

        I think the argument could be extended to “people themselves aren’t in a position to see who is and who isn’t doing that type of job”.

    • Deiseach says:

      Of course the vast majority of people do not work in jobs that are socially meaningful or making a huge impact on the world! There’s a lot of tedious trivial work out there that nevertheless has to be done – it’s like washing the dishes. You have to do it over and over, and it doesn’t make a huge change in the world, but if you don’t wash the dishes you will soon run into inconvenience and trouble.

      Most people probably don’t need to be at work all day for eight hours for a forty-hour work week, they could get the bulk of a day’s work done in four hours. This is why people do a lot of non-work activities at work, or fiddle around with time-wasting jobs. But the problem is, you don’t know when the four hours worthwhile work is coming along, and it generally doesn’t come in a handy lump, it’s spread out over the day. So you spend an hour checking email for the one email that you really do need to read and answer, you do an hour’s productive work then tootle around while waiting for the results of that so you can move on, etc.

      Or you clean toilets in a hospital on a rota, flip burgers, do ordinary grind that is not glamorous and not big splashy headlines and not high-earning and not thrilling life-or-death paramedic saving a life and is dull, tedious, has to be done all over again tomorrow work. That doesn’t make it bullshit. Bullshit work is the big splashy PR selling gold-plated tickets to a gala dinner where you eat off diamond-studded plates in order to raise money for a good cause (the money raised being a fraction of what would be raised if everyone just gave the price of the gowns and jewellery and tickets directly), bullshit work is creating the latest reality TV gimmick show or being a papparazzo.

      • JulieK says:

        I don’t think the original post was saying washing dishes or doing any other job that serves an obvious purpose was worthless – the supposedly worthless jobs are the ones that just involve jumping through bureaucratic hoops for no clear reason.
        (p.s. I’m washing dishes right now while reading SSC.)

      • phi says:

        but if you don’t wash the dishes you will soon run into inconvenience and trouble.

        Sounds like a significant change in the world to me. 🙂

  4. JulieK says:

    Around here, in order to be paid for a sick day, you need to bring a doctor’s note. Often, the doctor didn’t see me while I was sick, if it was just a bad cold or something. I just request a note and she prints out a form letter (“[so-and-so] was unable to work on [dates], signed Dr. etc.”).

    I used to see the doctor in person to get the note, but now I can do it all online.

  5. Shion Arita says:

    I’ve been wondering about the bullshit thing quite a bit too, and I think that there’s a fundamental phenomenon at work where the older and larger an organization of people gets, the more baggage it will accrue, and this happens automatically and without any conscious effort. Why does it happen? I think there are two interrrelated reasons: entropy and lack of a counterforce.

    For entropy, there are a lot of ways to organize your organization, and most of those are pretty far from the optimal. Over time, the organization will keep sampling those methods and will become more and more complicated, since (chaotic) complexity inherently increases over time in a system that is in the process of dissipating an energy gradient (which is kind of what you could say companies are doing in an economic sense), due to the inherent nature of the arrow of time (the motions of a glass falling off the table and breaking start off simple but become more complicated as the fragmentation process keeps going). Thus, the efficiency will go down over time, and that comes largely in the form of ‘bullshit’ being introduced.

    So why don’t these organizations get outcompeted? How do they get anything done at all?

    Well, to begin with their competitors are plagued by the same problems as well, but sometimes they do get outcompeted, by something new that is resetting the counter, and starting afresh, like Uber and the taxis. but mark my words, Uber will get ‘plicompicated’ over time as well. Plus, most companies will fail eventually, and a lot of the time they implode under their own bullshit.

    I’m starting to think that essentially the only thing that really saves companies is ‘free energy’, as in, their product is so desired that they can essentially afford to be inefficient. If everyone really wants to buy an iphone and will pay really high prices for it, your company can be successfull making them even if it has a lot of extra weight internally.

    So what about lack of counterforce?
    Essentially, no one *really* has much of a reason to make things go well. Usually my solution to these things is to just say something like “well, why don’t we just not care about the chairs?” and the response is usually sort of befuddlement. “What do you mean not care about the chairs? I don’t really *Care* about the chairs, but it’s not The Way Things Are Done.” Some of it is “i could get in trouble for not doing things The Way Things Are Done” but I think a lot of it is just blind acceptance of ritual. Something that’s probably a holdover from the stone age, where in your community, you kind of just had to accept The Way Things Are Done, since that was how knowledge about how to do things was maintained, and for more ‘pointless rituals’ how group affiliation signaling and cohesion was maintained. and peopple who did not were evolutionarily selected against. So basically people were under selection pressure to not really think for themselves and question how things are done. both in the past and in the present (what do you think the school system does? pretty much conditions you to give in to pointless ritual and punish/weed out those who have their own ideas about things).

    • Ricardo Villalobos says:

      For entropy, there are a lot of ways to organize your organization, and most of those are pretty far from the optimal. Over time, the organization will keep sampling those methods and will become more and more complicated, since (chaotic) complexity inherently increases over time in a system that is in the process of dissipating an energy gradient (which is kind of what you could say companies are doing in an economic sense), due to the inherent nature of the arrow of time (the motions of a glass falling off the table and breaking start off simple but become more complicated as the fragmentation process keeps going). Thus, the efficiency will go down over time, and that comes largely in the form of ‘bullshit’ being introduced.

      Pretty interesting stuff. Do you have any sources for this?

      • Shion Arita says:

        Unfortunately it would be a little hard to find. It was the topic of a lecture given by a visiting biology professor at my university in ~2011. I don’t remember the guy’s name, so it would be hard to look up his info or publications.

        Which is unfortunate because it’s one of those things where after hearing it it significantly impacted the way I think about things like that

    • Kenneth Duda says:

      You aren’t giving companies enough credit. Requirements like this (getting a doctor’s note in order to qualify for a special chair) serve to align the company’s interests better with the employee’s interests. Employees like special treatment and special chairs. Why not get one if it’s easy and free? Of course it’s not free to the company. So, the company places little obstacles in the employee’s path to raise the cost of this choice to the employee. It’s about aligning incentives. It wouldn’t be necessary if you could trust every employee to treat company money like their own.

      • JulieK says:

        Ditto for the requirement to bring a note in order to be paid for sick leave.

      • phi says:

        What does allowing employees to bring in their own chairs cost the company?

        • Deiseach says:

          What does allowing employees to bring in their own chairs cost the company?

          (1) They’ve already purchased standard chairs, now those chairs are not being used, so they’re an expense for nothing

          (2) Bringing in their own chairs is only the tip of the iceberg; somebody else on here told the tale of how they brought in an exercise ball and spent all day on company time lugging it upstairs to their new office. Me, were I the boss in that case, I’d have banned them from bringing in a ball instead of using a chair like everyone else, because it’s inconvenient and time-wasting

          (3) Somebody will bring in a chair or desk or large pot plant or something and either get injured themselves or somebody else will get injured tripping over it, then you’ve got a law case for work-related personal injuries

          (4) Resentment and bad for morale – ‘why does Joe get to bring in his own chair and I can’t blast my death metal at full volume from my personal speakers in our open-plan office’? People will take advantage, people will take umbrage, you’ll end up having to let everyone do as they will (which is letting the lunatics run the asylum) and the risks that entails (see point 3), or nobody can do it (and then Joe who really does have a bad back will go to the union which he has a right to do). So setting up some kind of “comply with this to get what you want” is necessary

    • keaswaran says:

      Accumulation of cruft is a major problem for any system, whether it’s computer code or an organization. Refactoring it and tidying everything up is hard work. When you’re dealing with people rather than computers, it’s made harder by the fact that any major change is going to negatively affect some people, and loss aversion means they will fight against it more than the people seeing the diffuse benefits (across the organization) of general efficiency improvement will support it.

    • Majuscule says:

      All those signaling and cohesion and selection phenomena never ended. It’s just been adapted to environments with office chairs, I think not because human beings have been hacked, but because these things are fundamental to our social nature. As such, the pointless rituals aren’t actually pointless (I recall Scott commenting to this effect at some point). On some level, “having your own ideas about things” has historically been a big risk, and still is. And social groups and businesses are primarily concerned with their own self-perpetuation and stability, not with efficiency or the thriving of their members, above all else. These patterns only make sense if the prevailing concern is keeping the group or institution on its rails. Toward that end, binding rituals are good and innovation is not to be encouraged unless that, too, seems likely to support the continuance of the establishment. Also important is the way these established patterns lighten our mental load and make the world navigable. Bullshit may be easily recognized as bullshit, but it’s still preferable to confusion in nearly all cases.

  6. Peter Gerdes says:

    How does signing a note that says:

    John Doe is a patient of mine and in my judgement he suffers from back pain.

    Dr. Alexander, Psychiatrist

    involve a lie? John Doe is your patient and you do believe he suffers back pain. You’ve made no representation about your expertise in back pain and have even indicated you are ‘only’ a psychiatrist.

    Now maybe you feel that this note would somehow implicitly suggest that you are qualified to diagnose back pain. But aren’t you? Being qualified to diagnose a condition doesn’t require you are as good at doing so as a specialist and aren’t you just doing what virtually all GP’s do as a matter of course (diagnose conditions a specialist could do better: ADHD, depression) and in this case you probably aren’t much less accurate.

    Indeed, the note you suggest seems to actively imply you doubt the individuals claim (maybe not their belief in the claim but the truth of it). I mean it’s a pretty standard rule that if you believe x to be true you say x and the only reason for saying ‘Jones says x’ is to implicate doubt in x.

    • vaniver says:

      Probable true rejection: who is Dr. Alexander such that the court should trust his judgment on matters of back pain?

      John Doe is your patient and you do believe he suffers back pain.

      Does he though? He believes that John Doe reports back pain, but probably also thinks “back pain” is a weird concept that he doesn’t want to rest too much weight on and also that patients often lie about things. [If the only way to get a comfy chair at work were to lie to a doctor about back pain, and you didn’t think honesty was important, why not do it?]

      • Shion Arita says:

        Well then how about:

        John Doe is my patient, and I believe he should be allowed to bring his own chair to work.

        • ashlael says:

          Or how about “John Doe is my patient and he reports suffering from back pain. I request that you allow him to bring his own chair.”

          • Peter Gerdes says:

            Avoids my concerns. However, there is a super strong implication that the second sentence follows from the first so if Scott thinks my wording goes too far (for some other reason than vaniver’s) he might have the same problems with this one. I mean this one arguably implies that Scott thinks the chair will alleviate that pain which is more uncertain.

    • peterispaikens says:

      It’s a lie because there’s a certain due diligence required for a doctor to be able to say “in my judgment, X” and Scott hasn’t done it, he does not have enough information to make an *informed* judgement, only a guess that’s likely to be true. Even if that due diligence is small, it still needs to be done, otherwise it’s malpractice; you need to look at the patient, ask the other obvious questions, and make that judgement after following the accepted ritual that’s deemed (with historical evidence!) to be mostly sufficient for making this diagnosis.

      Even if “90% of the time they just have the patient stand in front of them, make whatever movement it is that hurts their back, ask the patient if it hurt their back”, however, it also involves examining the patient – and in the other 10% of the time there are some obvious things that the patient failed to mention but which are relevant to the diagnosis.

      • Peter Gerdes says:

        Except I feel that iff Scott’s worry was that it would be malpractice and not that it is a lie he would have *said* malpractice.

        Moreover, if you go look at what wikipedia and the article in sources below says about medical malpractice it looks doubtful that writing such a note could open him up to malpractice claims (provided he doesn’t mislead the patient).

        First, it’s not at all clear that writing the note even constitutes medical treatment. He is neither advising the patient to do something nor failing to inform them of a risk. Second that treatment would have to cause an injury which seems highly dubious.

        Perhaps the most plausible argument would be that, in writing the note, Scott was stepping into the role of a back doctor (whatever their name is) and his failure to warn of serious risks is the malpractice. But there is no particular reason to suppose that a differently worded note would change the analysis. Moreover, Scott can simply make records (signed by the patient if necessary) indicating that he advised the patient he wasn’t an expert in back pain, advised them to go to a back doctor as soon as they were able and informed them he was providing the note entirely at the patients request to help them with their employer and it didn’t constitute medical advice or treatment. That should knock out any failure to warn theory (brought about by note) and ensure the patient assumes all the risk for the note.

        https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1755-5922.2010.00254.x

      • Peter Gerdes says:

        Or shorter version: where does this rule come from? Surely it isn’t any statement of that form (writing a note saying: In My Opinion Hamlet Sucks) so I suspect the rule is something about issuing a medical diagnosis. So the question is whether that is the sort of thing that qualifies as a diagnosis. I don’t know I’m just hoping for someone who does know the rules to explain them to me.

  7. Peter Gerdes says:

    Maybe a better way to convey my point is that: Are you sure your actual concern is that your diagnosis is so much less reliable than the usual standard rather than that it’s not backed up by reassuring checklists, procedures etc.. . From a lawsuit perspective that makes sense but from a truth-telling one isn’t all that the non-doctor is concerned about is the reliability of the diagnosis?

    • peterispaikens says:

      The way I read it is that for this particular purpose (whether someone should be allowed to bring a chair)
      a cheap, simple and unreliable diagnosis seems entirely appropriate, however, the regulation of medicine doesn’t really allow a “double standard” for diagnosis; either you make a *proper* diagnosis with due diligence or you don’t make one at all.

      • Peter Gerdes says:

        But is this a diagnosis? That’s the thing. It doesn’t purport to be, the patient would be notified to the contrary on record and advised that scott knows nothing about backs, suggests they see a real back doctor etc…

        Also what’s the law that prevents the double standard? Looking at malpractice (see above post) makes me think that there might not be any such specific law…then again medicine is pretty regulated.

  8. tentor says:

    In my work, I often have contact with people who work in the area of “compliance”. They are consultants, managers, programmers, and the like.

    You might think the purpose of compliance is that no rules are violated but it’s not. The actual purpose is that it’s not “my” fault when it happens. Eg, the manager wants to say “I ordered workplace behavior seminars, it’s not my fault an employee got harassed”. Covering your own ass is the one thing that is more important than profit to everyone. A lot of corporate behavior can be explained by this.

    • Robert L says:

      That would be a killer point if you claimed that managers spent their time creating the false illusion that they ordered workplace behavior seminars, in order to cover their asses. It’s the system, not the managers, which believes in workplace behavior seminars, so if managers in fact order them the system is working as intended irrespective of the motives of the managers.

      • tentor says:

        The point is that managers waste the company’s money and productivity to create the illusion that they have done everything in their power to prevent bad things from happening. Instead of having a system that encourages following and enforcing the rules (or rethinking them when necessary), we have a system that encourages doing some cargo-cultish rule rituals while not actually giving a fuck.

        And then everyone is surprised why big corporations can’t get shit done.

        • herbert herberson says:

          You’re absolutely spot-on right on your first post, but here you’re making the mistake that it’s just about these people personally. It is about that, too, but it’s more about the interests of the firm as a whole if it gets called out onto the carpet by a judge or by some Glengarry Glen Ross type

        • keaswaran says:

          It’s hard to design a system so that people actually buy in to all the rules! And if you can’t do that, but you think the rules are important, sometimes cargo-cultish rule rituals are still an improvement on the alternative.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Absolutely. No one has ever thought rape is just fine and then taken the HR training at work that says “no raping” and then said “oh guess I’m not going to rape now.” It’s so if that person goes raping, the company can say “we have a specific policy of ‘no raping’ and Sally here was informed of it and violated it anyway.”

      Also, this is the job of the people in HR. Not just to respond when their company got sued for raping, but also to keep an eye out in industry to see where other companies have gotten sued, and preemptively implement ass-covering programs at their workplace. “Coming up with new ways to cover our asses” is among the ways they justify their salaries.

      • keaswaran says:

        I have to do one of these sexual harassment trainings every year or two. And while it’s definitely mostly worthless, it probably has a few good features (reminding me that making dirty jokes in the wrong context could create a hostile work environment for some people; reminding that even consensual sexual relationships with people that I have some grading or other authority over is against the rules, and probably a bad idea anyway). It would be nicer if they didn’t embed it in a 90 minute sequence of short online videos with timers to require me to stay on each page long enough to read it, and if most of it wasn’t just total garbage.

        But I think there are a few good things in there, and it’s possible that putting that one reminder in everyone’s heads on a regular basis is going to actually prevent a few assistant professors from turning into Avital Ronell over the course of their career, which could be worth the huge investment of person-hours.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          +1 on harassment trainings being not totally useless.

          • albatross11 says:

            One problem you have with mandatory training is that a lot of stuff you personally might think “goes without saying” may not really go without saying. So it makes sense to have some class where it’s made very clear that putting your hand on your cute female coworker’s backside uninvited, or telling racist jokes in the breakroom, isn’t going to work out well for you.

            OTOH, most diversity training I’ve attended has been preachy “diversity is our strength” contentless nonsense. YMMV.

          • baconbits9 says:

            One issue that I think you run into is that the creation of the not useless might lead to the creation of the useless. A change of culture is needed (or legally mandated) so you hire an extra HR person and they put together the necessary training. A few years later you have (for the sake of argument) fewer incidents, the need for HR people is diminished from that point of view and most of the work was in creating the training, not in the periodic updates that follow. In a naked calculation you let the new hire plus another HR person go and move on efficiently, in reality they have had steadily increasing free time, resources and the appreciation of the upper level management (they did after all solve an issue in our hypothetical). Combined with their own confidence that technocratic abilities they start looking for problems to fix. Need to stop harassment turns into need to support women in the workforce, need to stop racist jokes turns into need to support people’s racial identities. Women in IT luncheons are convened, ethnic food days are celebrated and team building retreats become more common.

        • Deiseach says:

          reminding that even consensual sexual relationships with people that I have some grading or other authority over is against the rules, and probably a bad idea anyway

          I’d say definitely a bad idea always, because bad breakups are a thing and then the other party can and may claim you pressured/coerced them into it or otherwise took advantage of them, and it’s likely your colleagues/their peers may resent the relationship while it’s happening or feel the other party is getting unfairly favorable treatment because they’re banging Teacher.

          Unfortunately, this kind of training is probably necessary because people do tend to think with the little head when sexual attraction strikes 🙂 I think I’ve told the anecdote before of a previous job where I was told the story of a married man who had an affair with a subordinate, then left to go to a better job in another county leaving both an ex-wife behind and the subordinate pregnant with twins and due to be a single mother? Whatever about him, I feel it would have been no harm for her to sit through a “why banging people from work is A Bad Idea” training video!

        • Mark Atwood says:

          Years ago, I spent time chatting with someone who formerly had been a senior onsite IT tech for kink dot com in San Francisco.

          KdC back then was kind of unusual for their industry in that a significant number of their performers were regular employees, not cash contractors. As a California company with over a threshold number of employees, they were required to have an annual State of California Approved sexual harassment policy training, presented by a State of California certified and licensed sexual harassment policy trainer, provided by some random outsourced HR services company.

          You may try to imagine how well those mandatory training sessions went. More than once, the trainer was unable to finish the training, and just checked off everyone as passed and fled the building.

          This story still makes me smile….

          • CatCube says:

            From the outside, that’s actually probably a place you need sexual harassment training more than most. It’s pretty easy to make and enforce policy for avoiding sexual commentary and actions at Google, but when you’re at a place where sexually-charged material is routinely handled, it’s going to be a lot easier for a malefactor to exploit “Ha-ha, only serious” type nonsense.

            Then when your organization finally does get hauled into court, the plaintiff’s attorney is going to lead off with testimony that you’ve been pencil-whipping training about what is inappropriate towards co-workers, because why do these people need protection from that, amirite?

          • Matt M says:

            Without naming names, I’ll say that I’m “familiar” enough with the product to know that several of their female performers have come out with accusations that one of their most prominent male performers repeatedly sexually assaulted them.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I’ve seen enough of their stuff to notice that their performers are educated enough to not accidentally assault someone (which can be a real hazard for people who do bondage domination scenes).

      • Matt M says:

        Agree with Conrad.

        I’ve worked as a consultant to a few energy companies in my life. Almost every energy company of relevant size will claim to have a “culture of safety.”

        And this isn’t a BS claim either – it manifests itself in observable ways. For example, at most such companies, even in the posh and luxurious corporate headquarters, there are strict rules requiring all employees and visitors to hold the handrail when using the stairs, and there’s a cultural norm that strangers will literally call you out on it if you fail to comply.

        Why do you suppose that is? Because energy office workers in Texas are more likely to fall down stairs than software engineers in silicon valley? Because Texas juries are more likely to find against companies in safety lawsuits than California ones?

        No – it’s obviously because other parts of the company are, by the very nature of their existence, less safe. The “culture of safety” exists so that, the next time an offshore platform blows up and the corporate execs get hauled in front of a hostile judge/jury/congressman demanding answers, they can point to said culture of safety, and they can prove that it was so serious and so ingrained that even their office workers hold the handrail on the stairs. It’s to help them plausibly claim “We did literally all we could to force our workers to be safe.”

        • albatross11 says:

          This.

          I work in a place with labs that handle very dangerous materials. Screwing around with some of that stuff can poison you or blow you up. So we have a big push for safety throughout the organization.

          Now, I work entirely with computers, so other than the odd malfunctioning lithium battery in my laptop, I’m pretty unlikely to have anything at work blow up on me. But I still have the mandatory safety training every year, because it’s administratively easier to impose that on everyone and it probably does work to instill a safety culture on the whole organization.

          • Randy M says:

            There’s also an element of “Why do we have to do a mandatory 1 hour per week on safety when our office colleagues don’t?” among those working with some minor hazards.
            (People working with major hazards probably take much longer to get complacent and feel put upon)

          • deciusbrutus says:

            It takes less time=money to have you attend the safety training than it would to figure out who needs to attend it every year and who needs it every third year.

            The training itself doesn’t instill the safety culture, but looking at how people treat it is a great way to observe how seriously safety culture is taken.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          No – it’s obviously because other parts of the company are, by the very nature of their existence, less safe. The “culture of safety” exists so that, the next time an offshore platform blows up and the corporate execs get hauled in front of a hostile judge/jury/congressman demanding answers, they can point to said culture of safety, and they can prove that it was so serious and so ingrained that even their office workers hold the handrail on the stairs. It’s to help them plausibly claim “We did literally all we could to force our workers to be safe.”

          This is extremely cynical. Safety actions aren’t carried out by the CEO, they are carried about by line workers, supervisors, and middle management. Safety incidents are measured (even non-recordables) and we are graded against measure. The company might be concerned if the CEO gets hauled in front of Congress for questioning, but the people don’t. The people are championing a culture of safety because we’d rather not see our co-workers get dismembered or hurt by easily preventable accidents.

          • Matt M says:

            What does likelihood of dismemberment have to do with requiring IT people to hold a handrail?

            Why should it be that the middle management of oil companies are so much more likely to be concerned about stair-falling incidents than the middle management of IT companies?

            And I’m sorry, but making a really big deal about “culture of safety” IS an action carried out by the CEO. Safety being the first bullet in the “list of company values” is directly ordered by someone very high up in the organization. Cross-organizational requirements to have a monthly safety briefing and for every employee to identify one safe and one unsafe practice they’ve observed per quarter throughout the entire corporation is not coming from line managers. That’s coming from the board.

            And that’s something that is absolutely ubiquitous in industries where things sometimes explode and people sometimes die, while virtually unheard of in industries where explosions and death never occur?

          • Randy M says:

            Yeah, in my experience safety initiatives originate top down. Not to say people don’t care about getting hurt, but people tend to do their jobs as safely as they think they need and no more. In some cases that’s good enough, in others not; either way there will management started programs to monitor and improve practices, sometimes past the point of diminishing returns.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            What does likelihood of dismemberment have to do with requiring IT people to hold a handrail?

            Nothing. We would tell you to hold the handrail so you don’t trip and fall down the stairs and hurt yourself. Holding the handrail makes it much less likely that you will trip and hurt yourself. I work in a company that has this kind of culture. Do you think our CEO is looking over my shoulder? He is in Italy. I am telling you to hold the handrail so you do not hurt yourself, so that you instinctively hold the handrail whenever you are in a dangerous place, and so that it’s a universal company culture

            And I’m sorry, but making a really big deal about “culture of safety” IS an action carried out by the CEO. Safety being the first bullet in the “list of company values” is directly ordered by someone very high up in the organization. Cross-organizational requirements to have a monthly safety briefing and for every employee to identify one safe and one unsafe practice they’ve observed per quarter throughout the entire corporation is not coming from line managers. That’s coming from the board.

            CEOs cannot just create company cultures out of nothing. Requirements for safety findings are half-assed or faked if people do not believe in it.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            What does likelihood of dismemberment have to do with requiring IT people to hold a handrail?

            How likely is it the people working on projects that implement the software and hardware that DO have a chance of being involved in a dismemberment are in your IT organization?

            100%.

            Which is why the culture is important from top to bottom.

          • Matt M says:

            HBC,

            My only point is that ADBG seems to be offended that I am implying these things are done for reasons other than genuine care and concern by middle managers.

            To which my question is:

            1. Is it not reasonable to suppose that IT workers for Shell in Texas are just as likely to fall down the stairs as software engineers for Google in California?

            2. If so, given that we observe managers for Shell obsessing over handrail holding, but managers for Google not doing so, does this imply that Google managers are callous and cruel and care not for the safety of their employees?

            Why should genuine concern over stair-walking safety be confined exclusively to energy, construction, or other operationally-unsafe industries?

          • Deiseach says:

            Cross-organizational requirements to have a monthly safety briefing and for every employee to identify one safe and one unsafe practice they’ve observed per quarter

            … is going to have people inventing out of whole cloth stuff simply to satisfy the box ticking, because once you’ve identified the real dangers (people not holding handrails going down steep/slippery stairs*) and tackled them, then what do you do? If you have to produce “one unsafe practice” but nobody is doing any unsafe practice, and it’s not acceptable to leave that blank on the form, then you pull an unsafe practice out of the list of “these are sample unsafe practices” given and swear that next quarter, this will be eliminated.

            One job I was in, we had the same kind of “quarterly report where you take a monthly goal, write up what you are going to achieve, and report on last month’s goal” and everyone just pulled it out of their asses (me included) because it was always a last minute “we need this for the board meeting”, nobody could ever remember what last month’s ‘goal’ was, and nobody seriously took this month’s ‘goal’ as “yep we’re definitely working on that one”.

            *I’ve seen stairs like this at work, where doubtless the architect thought it was a cute design detail to have a multi-floor stairs going up from an atrium to the top floors, but in execution the treads were so narrow and the slope so steep that they had to put down stuff to enable grips on the treads and put up signs warning about handrail holding, so no wonder I always took the lift instead when I had to go up to Officer Country.

          • bean says:

            is going to have people inventing out of whole cloth stuff simply to satisfy the box ticking, because once you’ve identified the real dangers (people not holding handrails going down steep/slippery stairs*) and tackled them, then what do you do?

            We had this at work recently. When I suggested that the best way to reduce accidents in the company was to stop building things, because at least 75% of all injuries were from the factory, this was dismissed as “not helpful”.

          • Matt M says:

            … is going to have people inventing out of whole cloth stuff simply to satisfy the box ticking

            Which I think supports my point that the true purpose of these activities is not a genuine attempt to improve employee safety and well-being, but rather, to generate file cabinets of “here’s all the safety-related stuff everyone has been doing” to be produced in the event of a future lawsuit involving a safety issue.

      • Watchman says:

        To a point. Unless your training is useless it’s less about black and white and more about encouraging people to adopt views compatible with the cultures required by the company (to use the weird rape metaphor here, which makes me wonder about your workplace, to get people to realise not that rape is bad but that lack of clear consent is rape).

        That said it often doesn’t work well. My major memory of the non-discrimination in hiring workshop I was required to go on is the trainer, having gone on about unconscious bias for over an hour, trying to explain that we shouldn’t require a positive outlook on job descriptions due to the fact it might discriminate against depressed people. If the trainers still can’t get above depressed = sad, then the training is flawed.

        But ignoring egregious errors like that and the point of training is to nudge you towards a closer fit with preferred behaviour. And generally, so long as workers are not antagonistic to their employer, I find this happens.

    • cryptoshill says:

      If you want an extreme example of people who ordered things to be done to cover their own asses, without actually having any interest in the successful completion of that task – see: Every Military Training Brief Ever Given in the History of Ever. (To be less glib – military leaders are given a requirement to “train” on certain topics over and over again, without any real new information to train *about*, so they are very adamant that the training gets done, but don’t care one bit about how effective or useful that presentation or lecture is.)

      • deciusbrutus says:

        When the entire command says “I’m already good at sexual harassment, can I skip the training?”, it’s a strong sign that the training won’t be effective.

        Frankly, I think that some people used the examples given in training as inspiration.

  9. LesHapablap says:

    Siderea’s series on rising health care costs is relevant here: https://siderea.livejournal.com/1200003.html

    It is easy for a regulator or another business (usually a customer) to create mountains of extra work that has no value. Both the regulator and customer/agent have leverage to make you do the work, and their own incentives for requiring the work, and even if the incentive is tiny, that’s fine for them because they can externalize the cost onto you.

    • Dave92F1 says:

      In our company we have customers requesting those “mountains of extra work that (have) no value” all the time.

      It’s my job to scrutinize those requests and say “no”. A firm but friendly “no”, accompanied with a rational explanation, makes 95% of the requests go away. If they really insist, I reply “ok, we’ll do it if you pay for it” (with our normal profit margin included). That makes another 4% of the requests go away.

      The last 1%, we’ll either do it if they pay for it, or we’ll forgo their business.

      But somebody has to do this job. And it has to be somebody who won’t get fired for making the occasional customer go away.

  10. bobzymandias says:

    In my workplace the most common reason behind this kind of policy is some kind of slippery slope argument – if I let X bring in their own chair then Y will bring in theirs until Z is bringing in a glittering golden throne a-la hpmor.

    When previously working in a smaller company I was free to make decisions based on whether I trusted the person to be reasonable. In a larger company I have to worry about setting precedents not just within my relatively small team but for all the other teams on site. I know which I prefer but can see the argument even if it gets massively overplayed at times.

    • colomon says:

      Yeah, I’m thinking this is all about … I dunno how to say it, networks of trust?

      So, example. We went on vacation to a small place in another country this summer. We had to fly in, so I didn’t want to haul my accordion with me on the plane, but I did want to have an accordion when I was there. Luckily, one of the music stores there rents instruments. So I checked, and sure, they can rent me Steve’s accordion.

      I got there expecting I’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops — driver’s license, safety deposit, etc. Instead, they took a look at me, decided I looked trustworthy, and let me pay $40 and walk out of there with a $2000+ instrument massively better than the one I normally play. (Needless to say, I returned it exactly as agreed and in good shape.)

      Now, the world would be great if everyone could always function like that! But I’ve got to think that the first time someone untraceable walks off with a $2000 instrument, there are going to be massive changes to the procedures there. And yeah, some of the new procedures may seem weird or unnecessary. But all the jumping through hoops is going to be intended to weed out the cheaters.

      • theredsheep says:

        Ever read “Bowling Alone”? Part of his argument is that the decline of “Social capital” is bad because it drives up legal fees. When people know each other less, and they can’t say, “oh yeah, that’s Chris, he’s in the Rotary Club with my brother Joe and Joe says he doesn’t do bullshit,” they increasingly have recourse to pointing lawyers at each other.

  11. Radu Floricica says:

    I think you’re underestimating your expertise. Put yourself in the shoes of the policy maker in that company. He knows less than you about back pain, and in particular he doesn’t know if there is or isn’t an objective test for it. From his point of view, the larger class covered by the policy is “employees make medical claims”, which vary from “I need a new chair” to “I need more than 25 degrees in the office” and “I need less then 20 degrees in the office” at the same time.

    “Bring a doctor’s note” is a good generic response to all that, and it makes sense. You knowing it’s a no brainer to say “yes” is actually your expertise at work.

  12. eterevsky says:

    From what it sounds, this whole ritual may be a legitimate test for back pain. Basically it verifies, whether the back pain is bad enough that the individual is prepared to jump through some hoops to bring their own chair. As you write, there is no definitive medical test for back pain, so this kind of test is as good as it can be. For this test it is only slightly relevant whether you are a back doctor, or a psychologist. (A chore of finding a proper doctor would improve the test’s precision, but degrade its recall.)

    As to whether it makes sense for a company to require standardized chairs — I can imagine situations where it makes sense. It could be the front office, and the company may want it to look neat to the customers.

    • Deiseach says:

      As to whether it makes sense for a company to require standardized chairs

      Having done procurement in a small way, it’s mostly (a) complying with rules on tenders (b) reducing fuss – order a job lot of office chairs at price X from supplier Y, to be delivered Tuesday, job done now move on to the next. Fancy luxury chairs are a perk for upper management not the ordinary minions 🙂

      Having to get an expensive “this is a lumbar support chair” does require justification for the expense (“why are you buying a €200 chair, won’t an ordinary €60 chair do?”) and so having a doctor’s certificate to explain why Joe needs this chair covers everyone. If you buy a more expensive chair for one person, then everyone else wants to be treated the same. Buying one €200 chair isn’t that big a deal but buying 400 of them? Hence “Joe has a medical condition, do you?” as the reasoning.

      (And some people absolutely will pretend to have bad backs/legs/whatever in order to get better equipment or just for the hell of it).

  13. Frederic Mari says:

    First rule of bullshit jobs – don’t assume people know shit about their own function in a company.

    When they say they have a bullshit job that adds no value, it usually means their job doesn’t give them meaning/life satisfaction. It’s an issue but not the same thing at all from it having no value for the organisation.

    So. Procedure regarding chairs. Procedures usually arise in response to someone trying something totally demented somewhere and then forcing the authorities to write up something.

    If there was no rules regarding chairs, could I install a stand-up desk regardless of my office arrangement? Could I require a super expensive Aeron chair (or a gaming chair that looks like a deprivation tank) because “back pain” and “you’re liable for me hurting my back while I work for you”?

    Most procedures start with a very good reason, even if they do take a life of their own afterwards and move from “reasonable” to “pure admin drudgery”.

    • bean says:

      When they say they have a bullshit job that adds no value, it usually means their job doesn’t give them meaning/life satisfaction. It’s an issue but not the same thing at all from it having no value for the organisation.

      But I do think there’s a meaningful difference in types of value and how those play into job satisfaction. Let’s say that the government decides to impose a new rule, that any contract proposals going to the DoD must include an amusing story of at least two pages, handwritten. (Maybe they’re trying to reduce depression among their procurement people.) Suddenly, every defense contractor has to hire people to write the stories, and then write them out by hand. And from a certain point of view, these people are even contributing value. After all, it’s something that has to be done to submit contract proposals. But the whole thing is still BS. It’s virtual value, not the real value that the people who were behind the actual proposal were creating. If the requirement went away, then all that changes is that the DoD procurement people have to find funny stories on their own, and the number of writers who have good jobs at defense contractors goes down slightly.

      • Frederic Mari says:

        But that’s exactly my point. Even in your extreme example, the writing of funny notes make total sense and is valuable “as far as the organisation is concerned”.

        Whether it’s valuable or bringing satisfaction to the workers involved is of no concern whatsoever to the company itself (ok, that’s a bit pushing it. Even evil corpos know happy workers are more productive workers).

        And, in the case of chairs, various comments have already explored how the regulation was probably started for non-entirely laughable reasons.

        Sure, if everyone was a good person and not jerks, lots of regulations and rules would be unnecessary. As they say, pretty much all morality can be reduced to “don’t be an asshole”.

        Alas, the number of people who are assholes is incredibly high.

    • NostalgiaForInfinity says:

      An activity can have value for an organisation but not for society as a whole. Anything that functions as an arms race for example – your company needs to adopt shiny-new-thing because your competitors have, but then everyone has adopted shiny-new-thing and you’re all essentially back where you started. If your job is solely about shiny-new-thing, it’s kind of bullshit in that if your company stopped doing it, your company would be out-competed and suffer; but if everyone stopped doing it, society as a whole would benefit from not wasting resources in an arms race.

      There can also be enough bloat and waste in a company for bullshit jobs to exist for a non-trivial amount of time.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      >Could I require a super expensive Aeron chair (or a gaming chair that looks like a deprivation tank) because “back pain” and “you’re liable for me hurting my back while I work for you”?

      No. You can require that your medical needs be accommodated, but the employer is free to choose any of the accommodations that work without regard to which one you prefer. They might allow you to bring your own chair, if you prefer your chair to the accommodation that they will otherwise provide.

      I’m not aware of any tried cases equivalent to the employer selecting an accommodation with the intention of causing the employee to prefer to bring their own chair (for example, “The back pain chair that we have looks ugly, but you can bring your own at your own expense if you prefer”, so that they only have to buy one chair to accommodate many employees), but I think it would have to be outright retaliation before it wasn’t legal.

  14. StrongGnome says:

    I’m a patient who has had this issue a bit and I noticed a few doctors with the same ethical problem, this is what I’ve gotten them to write:

    I am a physician treating Mr. Smith. He tells me that he has a medical condition/disability that requires an accommodation and he asks to be allowed to bring his own chair to work.

    This works 80% of the time no questions asked. They can’t ask you what your medical condition is and they quiver at “accommodation” or “disability.”

    Sometimes managers get pissed and sometimes it’s company policy so when that’s the case I have the doctors write their qualifications, so something like:

    I am a licensed physician treating Mr. Smith. I am double board-certified and have 27 years of experience. I attended medical school at X University graduating with an MD. I completed my residency at Y Hospital where I served as Chief Resident. Following residency, I completed my fellowship at A. He tells me that he has a medical condition that requires an accommodation and he asks to be allowed to bring his own chair to work.

    That takes care of most of my cases. In the cases that it doesn’t I know the company or manager asked for a medical note as a way of saying “no” and thinking that I wouldn’t get it. In that case they will often find unlimited things “wrong” with the note, or find some other excuse like “we’ve changed our chair policy and only uniform chairs are allowed.”

    • Deiseach says:

      Actually, while we’re on the topic of doctors being asked to write confirmations for things outside their experience/specialty/competency, this is why when I was in social housing the requirement was to at least get a letter from a consultant (full hospital report was even better) when asking for accommodations or claiming medical emergency. An ordinary GP’s letter was no good because (a) you can get a doctor to write anything (b) if you’re claiming to have a serious physical or mental illness, you probably will be seeing a specialist already and they will have a much better diagnosis.

      Dr Scott writes “my patient tells me he has a bad back and can’t climb stairs, please install a stair lift in his house” is no good. How bad is his back? He seems to be able to walk just fine, does he even have a bad back? Your patient can (and will) tell you anything, why do you believe them and why are we supposed to believe them*? Surgeon Scott or Consultant Scott writing “my patient has degenerative spinal disease which is progressive, so that while he only has back pain now, over time he will be unable to walk” – yeah, that justifies installing a stair lift.

      *There are some stories I could tell about people faking/exploiting/flat-out lying about serious illness or disability, either themselves or a dependent, including “I/they have a terminal disease and will be dead in six months” – there’s a reason that the client’s bare word and a short doctor’s note isn’t good enough evidence.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      > In that case they will often find unlimited things “wrong” with the note, or find some other excuse like “we’ve changed our chair policy and only uniform chairs are allowed.”

      If it would impose an unreasonable burden on the company as a whole to make an exception to that policy, that’s a valid reason that putting a different chair in the office isn’t on the table. I can’t imagine that being the case.

      At that point I’d just bring a copy of the doctor’s note, along with a written summary of all the discussion with the manager, to HR. Be open to changes other than a different chair.

  15. Natalie says:

    Pain is one of those weird diagnoses – a doctor has to take the client’s word for it that they’re in pain; it’s not something that an outside party can discover. And because it’s totally within your license to make diagnoses, I think it’s fine that you write those notes with authority.

    Conversely, when I worked as a massage therapist I was asked to write a number of “my client has back pain” letters, and while, yes, their coming to see me was directly related to their pain, because it’s not *technically* in my license to render an ICD code diagnosis, the letter might not have held up in court. But these letters are not ever going to court, because they are merely CYA bureaucracy.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      The fact that pain is unverifiable, but still became a primary diagnostic measurement is also one of the 5 or main underlying reasons for the opioid epidemic, according to the must read book about the topic:

      https://smile.amazon.com/Dreamland-True-Americas-Opiate-Epidemic/dp/1620402521/

    • JulieK says:

      At least in some cases, a doctor can tell- for instance, Roald Dahl relates in his memoir how he tried to fake having appendicitis to avoid going to school, but he didn’t succeed in fooling the doctor.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      The fact that they were your clients is sufficient for ADA purposes.

      A diagnosis of a specific medical condition isn’t technically necessary; the closest requirement is that the employee has “a medical condition which significantly impairs one or more basic life activities”, “A history of such a condition” or “is regarded as having such a condition”. (from memory, don’t trust me to verbatim quote law)

      You don’t need an ICD code diagnosis for any of those.

  16. kastaka says:

    A truly efficient market requires perfect information. Most bullshit jobs are caused by a failure of perfect information – everyone has inefficient admin/management processes because nobody really knows what works, so you just copy some things that aren’t going to be surprising to anyone that you need to impress with your real-company-ness and hope that will be okay.

  17. Nate the Albatross says:

    As a manager who has managed at companies both with and without a chair policy, your note looks good to me.

    The purpose of the note is almost certainly an accounting classification. The budget for new chairs is $0.00 and is a capital expense that has requires layers of approval and your manager is tasked specifically with “keeping expenses low.”

    But an ADA accommodation probably comes out of the HR budget. Everyone hates HR and your HR representive likely sits in some other state and isn’t likely to every view the note. In fact the manager probably has a check box on the chair order form that says, “Does the employee have a doctor’s note?” yes/no. For privacy reasons you might not even need to retain the note.

    And even if there IS an audit process, the manager ordering the chair almost certainly knows better than most doctors if the employee has back pain or not and all of the layers of management who oppose buying a chair out of their budget are in lock step that HR should definitely pay.

    Thus the dubious note, if challenged by HR, is likely to be met by passionate pleas about taking care of employees and anger from people who don’t want the expense assigned to them.

    And before you ask why they can’t just set the new chair operations budget at $1,000, keep in mind that if they only spend $800, there will be a $200 cut to that budget. And if they spend $1,200 you lose your bonus. Plus there is always a jerk who orders his team all new chairs each year leaving the rest of the department with ten year old junk chairs.

    In a perfect world each employee gets an ergonomic budget. But if you have a chair policy clearly perfection is not in the cards. So you get a note, and charge it to HR. Because HR is mostly Bull$%t

    Edit: also, unlike your department, HR might be able to make a case that accommodations are inherently good and they should get a bigger budget if they spend thousands of dollars on chairs. When you buy a standing desk, you are a hipster wasting money. When HR buys someone a standing desk it supports diversity, inclusion and demonstrates how important HR is. 🙂

    • deciusbrutus says:

      If a beancounter tells HR “You are spending too much on accommodations”, they send a polite email to legal asking legal to tell beancounter how much it can cost to provide inadequate accommodation.

    • Harold Keaton says:

      This.

      Also, when you give Jane a chair, John will complain he doesn’t have one. Having the accomodation lets me give the employees who at least kind of want a better chair what they want without screwing up morale, “Go get a doc’s note if it’s bugging you, John” pretty much sorts out the ones who kind of want one.

  18. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    “and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain,”

    At least two commenters have written about costs to the company of supplying a special chair, but this discussion is about employees supplying their own chairs.

    • Deiseach says:

      That’s probably why the employee has to bring in their own chair, if the company won’t pay for a new/special one. But since if you just take Joe’s word for it that he has to bring in his own chair, then everyone will start bringing in the kitchen sink, you need some kind of filtering mechanism, and a doctor’s note is that. Especially if, when Joe brings in his own special back-pain relieving chair, it looks exactly the same as the chair that was supplied as office furniture 🙂

  19. JulieK says:

    Graeber’s article mostly looks pretty silly to me. He does raise a valid question, though:

    In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen.

    I would say the main reason it didn’t happen is because we chose to continue working long hours in order to have a higher standard of living, rather than choosing to live at a 1930 standard of living by working 15 hours a week.

    The median person in the US or the UK in 2018, compared to his 1930 counterpart, has more living space, more vehicles, higher quality living space and vehicles (in 1930 many homes still lacked electricity and running water), more clothing, more appliances, more convenience food, etc.
    (We discussed other aspects of this issue extensively in the “cost disease” thread.)

    • Deiseach says:

      choosing to live at a 1930 standard of living by working 15 hours a week

      More that employers didn’t see why they were paying an employee a full week’s wages if they were only working fifteen not fifty/forty hours. The idea of “with new technology we could all be working only fifteen hours a week” heavily depends on the unspoken corollary “while still being paid the same wages as if we were working forty-eight hour weeks”, something no employer anywhere is going to countenance. And efficiencies means work expands; the idea of the typewriter being that what took a clerk all day to write could be done in a morning didn’t mean that typists could get all their work done by noon and go home (even if they could do so), it meant that more work could be done today that would otherwise be put off until tomorrow. Now instead of hand-writing twelve letters, you can type thirty to Smith and Sons. And since Smith and Sons can type thirty back in reply, that’s more work to be done due to the new efficiency and productivity.

      • Dave92F1 says:

        @Deiseach I think you’re mistaken here. The whole point of the typewriter is that it *increases productivity* – you get more done in a given hour of work.

        Ultimately if the economy as a whole becomes more productive, that means each hour of labor earns a higher standard of living that it did before.

        So, if you’re willing to accept the lower 1930 standard of living (no telephone, no computer, no TV, no car, no air conditioning, no central heating, no airline travel…), then YES Keynes was right that it can be done on 15 hours/week worth of wages.

        There’s no need or expectation for employers to pay 40 hours worth of *2018* wages for 15 hours worth of *2018* work. Instead, because of higher productivity, they can pay 40 hours worth of *1930* wages for 15 hours worth of *2018* work.

        It’s just, as @JulieK said, that almost everyone prefers a 2018 living standard with 40 hours/week of work over a 1930 living standard with 15 hours/week of work.

        Plus social expectations and templates that support that choice of the majority (it’s hard to find employers who want to hire you for only 15 hours/week).

        • Deiseach says:

          Dave, if you can find an employer willing to employ you in a job for fifteen hours a week while paying you a reduced wage but still call that a full-time job and be happy that you’re being as productive as the workers doing forty hours, then prove me wrong and I’ll be happy. I think basically we agree – employers will pay you 1930s wages not 2018 wages, but the utopians who say “we should only be working fifteen hours a week” don’t realise that, they imagine that Magic Tech means money now grows on trees and employers can pay a full week’s wage (or salary) at 2018 rates for fifteen hours work, instead of “work fifteen hours, get paid for fifteen hours”.

          My point was that new tech (such as typewriters) enabled people to be more productive and get the work that formerly would have taken two days to do completed in a morning. But then what happens? Does the employer say “well, that’s a week’s work done in three days, guess we’d better close up for the other two days” or do they say “maybe we can expand our business to get more work done in those extra two days”? Now your productivity is not measured by the old hand-writing scale (where it took you two days to get through X letters), it’s measure by the new type-writing scale (where it takes you four hours to get through X letters). Now everyone is producing X letters in four hours, you no longer have to wait three days for a reply, you can get it in the morning, so now the pace of work quickens and the volume of work expands.

          Now you the employee are being asked to work the same days and same hours in the work week because now the new volume of work requires that. An employee who insists on doing the old volume of work in fifteen hours, even if they only expect fifteen hours pay not the weekly wage they used to get, is a useless employee to you (unless you decide to scrap the full-time job and make it part-time instead). Now the fifteen hours employee is costing the employer money, not making it, because they are not doing the new volume of work.

          That’s the flawed underlying assumption I was trying to attack – that we take a measure of the volume of work (say, produce X thousand boxes a week on a factory production line), introduce new tech, and say now we can produce the same X thousand boxes in two days, so the employees should have three days off while still getting paid for the five day work week as formerly.

          No, the box factory will either now scale up to produce Y number of boxes in a week with the new tech, or it will make the employees part-timers who work two days a week and get paid for two days. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about 1930 five days’ wages, you still won’t get that wage because now you’re not working the five days as far as the employer is concerned.

          And if you can guarantee that 1930s wages will pay rent at 1930s rates, then yeah, a fifteen hour work week is great. But that’s another unstated and mistaken assumption baked in there – the utopians imagine that the cost of living is going to be unchanged, so everyone gets the full week’s wages for three days work and can have the 1930s (or 1970s) leisure life because they have four days free time to spend that money on. No, rent and other costs go up, and if you only have three days wages, you may not be able to afford to pay 2018 prices even at 2018 wage scales.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            >”or it will make the employees part-timers who work two days a week and get paid for two days.”

            Unless they are getting a raise to where they are earning what used to be a week’s wages in those two days, that’s exactly the problem. Worker productivity has more than doubled, such that either there’s the same amount of goods being produced but lower wages or more goods produced but the same wages.

            Since the number of goods sold cannot be different from the number of goods bought, and the total price of goods bought cannot (in the long term) exceed the amount of wages paid, then higher productivity should drive proportional drops in wholesale nominal price. Which we see, although it’s masked by inflation: cars are affordable for the working class.

  20. Freddie deBoer says:

    Like 90% of any job is trying to demonstrate to the people that employ you that you’re doing enough to justify having the job.

    • j r says:

      That literally describes no job that I’ve ever had. It is possible that I’m singularly lucky, though.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        For most people work is not meaningful, obviously productive, or emotionally satisfying. The problem is that the people who write the culture tend to be the ones who like their jobs. I trust you have some sort of enviable position, unlike most.

      • Randy M says:

        My previous job I wouldn’t begin to call bullshit, but my supervisor told me many times “Appearances are everything”, ie, “please make my job easier by making it bloody obvious that we should keep you, preferably with a factual basis.”
        Even when the job isn’t BS the evaluation probably is, especially at any large company.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Amazon warehouse workers?

    • Mark Atwood says:

      I have never had a job like that.
      Is that what the job you have right now is like?
      Is that what the job Scott has is like?

  21. Nietzsche says:

    You asked for philosophers to chime in. You know all the usual ethical theories and what they would tell you to do in this case, so I’m not going to rehearse them. So I’m giving a personal anecedote instead. One of the things I have to do in my job is provide “outcomes assessment”. This is ostensibly a measure of what my students have learned in my classes that I get in some way other than graded assignments. I, and about 95% of the rest of the faculty, think this is bullshit. But it was foisted on us against our will by accrediting bodies who listened to education “professionals” and probably can’t wait to make us shell out millions to third-party testing companies. So I make up the numbers. Like 100% make them up out of whole cloth. No one has ever noticed or cared, which more or less proves that they were pointless to start with. I don’t feel bad about this in the slightest. As far as I’m concerned, I’m striking a small blow against bureaucratic idiocy and one for a rational academy. Go ahead and lie. No one is going to care—the bosses can tick off whatever box they need, your patients will use a new chair or more ibuprofen, and life will go on slightly better than before.

  22. oh_moses says:

    Bullshit jobs are no mystery. They exist to the degree that there’s a separation between stakeholders and decision-makers. In a small startup, there is no separation, so there are no bullshit jobs. In, say, IBM, if you’re some frontline manager with twenty people under you, the distance to anyone who remotely cares about the company bottomline (i.e. the board) is so vast that it has no bearing on your actions (and, importantly, staffing decisions) whatsoever.

    And god forbid you’re in the public sector, where the distance between stakeholders and decision-makers is infinity. I used to work in a public hospital in my Eastern European homeland, I estimate the non-medical staff was 80–90 % filler. I spent some good days pondering whether, if you replaced the parts of my job that could be replaced by a Python script, whether you could actually train a chimpanzee to do the rest (I dream big), or whether you’d have to have a high-schooler come in for one day a week to do it (mostly the non-scriptable part was printing piles of paper for audit reasons and stuffing them in binders).

    • 1soru1 says:

      In a small startup, there is no separation, so there are no bullshit jobs.

      Unless the startup is a bullshit startup…

      Best case, something like Uber is genuinely changing the world by automating taxi dispatcher jobs out of existence. But how is that meaningful if all that automation just leads to employment and total hours worked staying the same, wages staying stagnant at best?

      That’s the thing about the bullshit jobs hypothesis; it’s true if you believe it is.

  23. glasnak says:

    This reminds me of the Jobs below the API, the divide between jobs above the API (humans telling machines what to do) and below the API (humans told by machines what to do, doing the algorithmic work that someone else has designed). This stuck with me, as the gap of this API replacing middle management seems to be widening.

    Also, for more comments regarding this, this is currently a top-scoring link on HN: Hacker News

  24. herbert herberson says:

    3/4 of bullshit jobs are there to improve legibility for management, insurance, and, ultimately, capital.

    The rest are there to do the same thing for the state.

  25. jamesrobey says:

    Perhaps if there were no jobs, we would still create fake jobs to keep people feeling happy & productive.
    https://www.fastcompany.com/3036728/office-roleplay-meet-the-people-who-pretend-to-work-at-an-office-together-for-fun

  26. phil says:

    One thought on bullshit jobs, I’m skeptical of people’s ability to self identify their job as bullshit.

    Mostly because when they understand the full utility of what they’re told to do, they ask for raises.

    So from the employers standpoint, creating a seed of doubt in each employee that their input isn’t essential, saves costs

    Even if it leaves the employee thinking that what they do is maybe bullshit.

    —————
    —————

    I lied, second thought

    There’s a strong element of Seeing Like a State going here too, in a small group (less than 10 or so) taking time to create paper trails is a drag on productivity

    in a medium organization (more than 10, less than (ballparking) 30 or so?) its utility is probably questionable

    in any larger organization (more than 30) paper trails and policies that ritualize them aren’t bullshit, the state/organization legitimately can’t ‘see’ without them

    they still drag productivity, but w/o them the organization can’t take advantage of its economies of scale

  27. aristides says:

    I work at the HR end for the government. The issue we have is that we have to pay for the ergonomic chair, they cannot bring in their own. So we have a system just onerous enough to prevent people who don’t need the chair from requesting it, but not too hard for people who need it to get it. Usually that’s a doctor’s note, tons of paperwork, and a 30-90 day process. Is that efficient from a free market standpoint? Probably not, but it’s the most efficient we can be following regulations. I’ve seen paperwork similar to yours, and if the ask is cheap enough we usually give it. If not I send it to a doctor, he tells me it’s not enough, and I ask for more medical information. Often the notes are from family doctors that I know don’t have the expertise, but I never take that into account as long as they have an MD.

  28. Ninety-Three says:

    I used to work as a cashier. Although no one ever does it (customers were always surprised when I did), when they use a credit card and give their signature, you’re supposed to compare it to the signature on their card. Every now and then, I’d get a customer whose card was unsigned, so I’d call a manager. The manager would always come over and tell me to approve the transaction anyway.

    We can trace why this bullshit was happening. In order to process credit card payments, the store had to make an agreement with the card companies promising they would check signatures, which the companies had designed as a fraud-prevention measure. The store didn’t care about checking (probably because someone signing the wrong name to a card never happened (if it did happen the store would care since the store is the one that loses out when the credit card company refunds a cardholder’s transaction as fraudulent)), but they couldn’t admit that they didn’t care and start telling cashiers “Yeah, don’t bother checking” since that would risk getting them in trouble with the credit card companies.

    I think it’s not about looking responsible per se, it’s that when you have a stupid rule, ignoring the rule risks some penalty, but bypassing the rule is easier than convincing the makers and enforcers of the rule to change it.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      I remember when bank charge cards and large chain store charge cards were just starting to be a Thing for ordinary people. (Before that, they were weird exotic things you only saw in movies about rich people in New York, similar to car phones.)

      Back then, *yes* the checkout clerk checked the signature. Mainly because that was the only Point of Sale fraud detection tech available.

      The other reason for the signature check was to provide some forensic evidence if the *store* decided to start defrauding the bank. A stack of sequential charge slips all with no signatures or with signatures all written by the same hand is something that an auditor will look for.

      Today, now, there are better automated POS and merchant fraud detection systems in place, especially now that the issuers have finally been able to kill the last remaining mechanical zikzak embossed-number impression machines. So now that that is done, the issuers have announced that they are going to start issuing cards with no signature field.

      Understand the history of the tech, and the history of the risk, and it makes much more sense.

  29. joncb says:

    Apologies for the potential nerd snipe but have you seen any research on the effects of back pain on someone’s mental health? If you can find any research the suggests that back pain can make someone’s mental health issues worse then it seems like adding a phrase along the lines of “to prevent the potential aggravation of an existing condition” might add some CYA in-case your patient comes across a particularly conscientious oxygen thief.

  30. Plumber says:

    Nice timing!

    I read Graeber’s essay some years ago and the book last month, and I thought it was pretty good (even though the methodology used wasn’t exactly scientific), he showed charts that demonstrated that the increase in “service sector” jobs is actually “administrative” jobs (layers of bureaucracy) and tied it to “cost disease”, the second to last chapter was on some history of wage labor and he discusses the old guild system, which inspired me to read other books about that. The last chapter was on “What is to be done?” and he admitted that the best he could suggest was a Universal Basic Income (which seemed odd for a self-described Anarchist).

    He had a bit on how he called in a Service Order for some repairs at the University he works at, and how a carpenter came, said safety rules prevent him from starting work until some stuff was moved, Graeber moved the stuff, but the carpenter didn’t come back, and instead some guy called to apologize for the carpenter not coming back, and why can’t the university just hire another carpenter instead of a having a guy who’s job it is to apologize for the carpenter not being available? 

    Which shows a bit of a blind spot on Graeber’s part, the apology guy is likely much cheaper to hire and easier to train than a skilled carpenter. 

    Also, as a plumber who’s swamped with work orders I know that the likely reason that the carpenter didn’t come back is that more urgent looking service orders likely came in, plus one tends to do the jobs one can get done right there and then first, and one knows that you’ll hear a “thank you” if you do a job soon after you get the service order, but if you complete it two days after the request instead of three days (or thirty days) you’re still going to hear the same “What took you so long” so why not do get a potential “thank you” instead?

    Plus the carpenter was probably irritated that all that junk was in his way and if Graeber’s knew he was coming why didn’t he move the stuff?

    As to why the carpenter didn’t move it himself? 

    Probably back pain and/or being swamped with other service orders.

    Anyway, in a previous thread someone suggested “Parkinson’s Law” as an answer to a rant I posted, most of which seems cogent to this thread, so I’ll copy and paste most of my rant:

    “….I’m increasingly of the opinion is that too many of the jobs still available are more and more “white collar”.

    As I understand it a “blue collar” job involves moving and/or transforming physical materials, while “white collar” jobs typically involve communication and record keeping. 

    During my lifetime while the number of teachers ans physicians as a percentage of the population has stayed pretty steady, but the number of people in “administrative positions” in both healthcare and education have exploded, 

    Why?

    “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, “Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.” That represents one million, two million, three million jobs people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”
    – President Obama 

    Why create and keep jobs that serve no purpose?

    When I still worked in private industry as a plumber I couldn’t help but notice that the more hands in the field of any given shop the more ladies that would in the office, but except for bankruptcy, while the number of men with tools and trucks would wax and wane depending on jobs available, the number of office workers only grew. 

    Why?

    Now I work for a City Government, and I see that while the number of firefighters and police officers stays mostly the same, the number of hands on tool using Public Works employees (like me) is actually less then 20 years ago (and trust me our tools and materials used now aren’t much better then in the 1990’s), but the number of “managers” and “administrative assistants” working for the City only grows larger, despite we blue collar employees being told we need “to do more with less”.

    Why?

    Often I’ve seen on Forums messages along the lines of “I’m posting from work”, and now “cyber Monday” when people shop on-line while they’re at work is reported on.

    More and more of my time is spent fending off “compliance officers”, “inventory clerks”, “sensitivity awareness workers”,”safety specialists” and other “managers” who interrupt my actually fixing things with demands that I attend mandatory meetings and fill out additional paperwork, while it gets harder and harder to order parts and tools needed.

    For example, there’s one laborer I usually work with who makes less than I do, and often he’s charged with moving something heavy that he really can’t lift on his own, so instead of doing my work I help him as there’s no one else available. 

    If he was to lift his assigned load by himself he’d be breaking “ergonomic” and “safely” rules (and if injured fired) as told in the mandatory meetings, which are designed to reduce The City’s “workman’s comp” expenses, and if he doesn’t lift the load he may be fired for lack of production (I’ve seen the same thing in private industry, but there it’s more clear that breaking safety rules is expected, unless you’re injured and tell a doctor or nurse at the emergency room the truth about where you were injured, in which case you “acted without authorization”, but unless you can work injured you were going to get fired anyway).

    Here’s an idea, have one of the army of people at desks or walking around with clipboards trying to look busy, or worse being busy and authoring another “policy directive”, instead come help and lift the damn thing!….”

  31. Quixote says:

    On a fundamental structural level, any program to prevent problems looks wasteful if it is successful. People think, “sheesh, why are we spending all this money building water purification plants; no one gets dysentery any more in this day and age.”
    If there were no procedure on chair control, some jerk / idiot would do something annoying and potentially dangerous. Because there is a procedure, the inconvenience is enough to deter anyone without real need. And the people with real need get waved through the system casually because everyone can tell they aren’t the people the policy was put in place to stop.

  32. Kenneth Duda says:

    This one I can answer.

    Companies understand that it is very easy for people to spend other people’s money. They want each employee to treat company money like his/her own money, but how do you accomplish that? It’s a variant of the principal/agent problem. How does the company (principal) assure the agent (employee) is looking out for the company’s best interests, especially when the beneficiary of the company’s spending is the employee him/herself?

    The answer is that the company can’t.

    But, what the company can do is place obstacles in between the employee and the spending. Create _some_ direct cost to the employee. This will at align the employee’s interests and the company’s somewhat better than without the obstacle.

    So, the purpose of requiring some kind of note from a doctor is to raise the cost to the employee of spending the company’s money, to better align the employee’s interests with the company’s. Whether the waste it avoids is greater or less than the waste it creates is an exercise to the reader.

    Your medical note solution is exactly the right solution, by the way. I know other doctors who do the exact same thing — they write a letter that states actual (obvious) facts, instead of actually saying what the company asked, and it’s essentially always fine, because the actual purpose of making the employee get the letter is satisfied no matter what the letter says.

    Kenneth Duda
    Menlo Park, CA

  33. Otzi Ozbjorn says:

    Perhaps it’s time for the advent of the emotional support office chair.

  34. Jake Seliger says:

    “In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable?”

    One possible answer: the market is actually consuming and producing a lot of signaling. Maybe less signaling than profit, but still a lot, except no one wants to admit as much.

    Maybe the richer we are, the more we can afford to signal.

  35. Freddie deBoer says:

    So many of the discussions of labor in this space are deeply biased by the fact that so many of the commenters here work high-prestige, high-paying jobs in engineering and computer science. Of course, you all think jobs aren’t bullshit. Of course, you think the labor market is efficient.

    • Matt M says:

      I’m curious at what end of the spectrum you think bullshit jobs do exist?

      I’d say they’re more likely to exist at the higher end than the lower end. Most low-paying jobs are service industry jobs that are clearly and obviously not BS. I think BS jobs by necessity require a nice office environment and a college degree, at the very least.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Anecdata, but I know someone who worked in pizza delivery and data science at different points in life. They complained about the latter being bullshit, not the former.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          No one is padding out minimum wage employees at the Pizza Hut to look better to management.

          It’s the high-end specialized jobs that are more likely to be bullshit. If all the garbagemen or pizza delivery guys or crop pickers disappeared tomorrow we would notice very quickly. If all corporate lawyers fell in a hole how long would it take the average person to realize it?

          (Edit: obviously those lawyers do useful things)

          • Matt M says:

            In fact, at Pizza Hut, it’s the opposite. The goal is to minimize, as much as possible, headcount. A manager who can get by with 3 employees will be seen as superior to one who claims to need 5 (assuming equal volume).

            Whereas at the corporate level, someone who supervises 5 people will be seen as more important and prestigious than someone who supervises 3.

        • Michael Handy says:

          Yep, I’ve acted as junior lab assistant in an environmental QA facility, and as Director of Digital Marketing for a Medium sized Agency.

          In the latter, I ran and developed campaigns for major NGOs, and in the final analysis it was STILL more useless than scooping shit into jars of solvent.

      • JulieK says:

        I think his point is that we, or people in our ingroup, are working BS jobs, and don’t want to admit it.

    • cryptoshill says:

      The labor market is *more* efficient in low-prestiege, low-paying jobs in burger-flipping.

      A lot of readers of this blog are the beneficiaries of market segmentation (one Software Developer isn’t necessarily the same as another Software Developer), which is a market inefficiency.

      You also seem to have this idea that just because someone works in a high-prestiege position now that they’ve never worked in the type of soul-crushing drudgery job that you are referencing, and thus have no frame of reference for doing so. I have a low prior on that and you’ve given no reason to raise it.

    • albatross11 says:

      This may be my own white-collar-educated myopia, but I’d expect that someone working in a plastics factory or a warehouse would have a pretty good idea of what their job was accomplishing. (Maybe what you’re making at the plastics factory is something pretty useless, but it’s clear you’re making something.) Similarly for being a plumber or carpenter or electrician or car mechanic. I’m sure there are bullshit tasks in those jobs, too, but I’d expect most people working at a car repair shop to be spending most of their time doing something related to fixing cars or getting paid for doing so.

      On the other hand, a lot of mid-level white collar jobs seem like “just a cog in the machine” stuff that either is bullshit, or feels like bullshit even though somehow the whole organization would grind to a halt if there weren’t someone doing this job.

      Is there survey data on this?

      • Plumber says:

        “This may be my own white-collar-educated myopia, but I’d expect that someone working in a plastics factory or a warehouse would have a pretty good idea of what their job was accomplishing. (Maybe what you’re making at the plastics factory is something pretty useless, but it’s clear you’re making something.) Similarly for being a plumber….”

        @albatross11,

        Typically the B.S. part of my decade+ of being a plumbing construction worker was the mandatory “safety meetings”, in which we were made to sign that we read something that was typically written by companies who write up sruff to have safety meetings about

        The information did list ways people had been injured in the past that could potentially be useful, but what made it B.S. was that if in trying to follow those rules slowed production you’d typically be fired. 

        One incident that grinds my gears was when I was the Jobsite Steward appointed by the union for those employed by F. W. Spencer & Son, Inc. at the San Jose airport expansion in 2007, and I had a situation in which one guy was fired for leaning a folding ladder against something and climbing it, and another guy was fired for refusing to climb a ladder like that (by his brother!).

        Useless meetings are indemic in City employ, but at least my immediate supervisors are more likely to either give me time to do a job more safely or tell me face-to-face when a rule is to be ignored instead of my trying to suss out what the unspoken rules really are.

    • Thegnskald says:

      50% of all jobs are bullshit. By necessity.

      But it isn’t that half of all jobs are 100% bullshit, it is that 100% of all jobs are 50% bullshit.

      (The exact percentage varies a lot more than that, mind.)

      Because the demand for manpower isn’t a neat flat line. It isn’t a line at all, it is a wave. The spikes happen at predictable times – Target needs more cashiers during November and December, farms need more laborers during the summer and fall, etc.

      Now, if we made our economy hyperefficient, our farm laborers would all go work at Target or whatever as soon as they finished picking fruits and vegetables, they they would become tax professionals from January until June or whenever late taxes stop being a thing, then go back to picking fruits and vegetables.

      That is unrealistic for a number of reasons, so industries each come up with their own odd solutions. Botanists grow flowers all year, making next to no money, so they can make a killing on… those red plants everybody buys for Christmas and which die of neglect shortly thereafter whose fails me for the moment. Farm workers are migratory.

      And office workers spend 80% of the year doing nothing. Well, they perform makework, to keep them busy and to keep upper management content. But basically nothing.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The labor market is efficient” isn’t some capitalist talking point. You could easily reframe it as “business owners are greedy and obsessed with money and love firing people if it will put a single extra penny in their pocket”.

    • j r says:

      Of course, you all think jobs aren’t bullshit. Of course, you think the labor market is efficient.

      As I said above, personally, it’s not that I think that there is not a bunch of bullshit work being done or that I think that the labor market is perfectly efficient. It’s that I think most conversations about what is and isn’t bullshit are non-falsifiable.

      Show me a framework for making non-bias judgments about these claims and I’m all ears.

  36. arbitraryvalue says:

    Imagine a scenario where lions prefer to chase antelopes which are not in a big herd. This isn’t because being in a herd makes antelopes harder to catch; the herd offers no intrinsic protection. However, antelopes know the lions’ preferences, so the antelopes that end up outside the herd are likely to have serious problems that both prevent them from successfully following the herd and make them easier for lions to catch. In this scenario, it is quite rational for lions to prefer chasing antelopes outside of the herd, and so it makes sense for antelopes to prefer staying in the herd. The purpose of the herd isn’t protection, but rather costly signalling, and costly signalling is useful and increases efficiency. It’s frustrating to know that if everyone were honest, paying the cost of that signalling wouldn’t be necessary. But the antelopes with serious problems are very motivated to lie, and who can blame them?

  37. theredsheep says:

    I think the short answer is that nobody cares enough about putting it to a stop to go against whoever had a vested interest in getting it to continue. I’m a pharmacy tech; that’s a certified position. You need to be certified by the state, and preferably by the country, to stick pills in bottles or put them in automated dispensing cabinets. Most of the knowledge the cert tests for is irrelevant to actual performance of your job, wherever you work, and could probably be replaced by just telling employers of pharmacy techs that they could be held liable for pharmacy techs who don’t know how to do their damn jobs. But if you did that, nobody would be happy; employers would have a less simple, black-and-white test to follow, and “senator strips medical safety regulations” never plays well. Pearson would lobby furiously against the lost income from getting to test pill-movers all over the country. Even existing pharmacy techs would become slightly more replaceable if you got rid of the asinine cert, because frankly we already learn on the job; the cert’s just a handy barrier to slow down the flow of new talent into our pool, once you’ve passed it. Getting rid of it would only help all the people trying to get into a new career, who tend to be poor and powerless. There you go: bulletproof bullshit.

    We also have to maintain certification by way of “continuing education,” which generally consists of going to freece.com (the name is a lie, it’s not free for all practical purposes), paying them $80/yr for unlimited access, and putting as little effort as possible into “reading” articles which have little-to-nothing to do with the performance of your job, then taking multiple choice tests. Since you have unlimited tries at the test, I find it simpler to skip the article, answer with what sounds right, note how many I got wrong, and retake rapidly until I achieve the minimum correct score. Others are less lazy about it, but I wager you that absolutely nobody remembers much of those articles 24 hours after reading them.

    Then there’s “live CE,” where you ignore a livestream of somebody with a phd and no work ethic reading a powerpoint at you for an hour. You have to prove you’re actually there by clicking a random answer to two multiple-choice questions at random points during the lecture. They play different music when the questions appear so you won’t miss it. You are not required to have either answer correct. Most of us turn the lecture on on our phones while we work, set the phones down, and rush over to answer the question when the music plays. Is this bullshit? Absolutely. But $80 a year isn’t that much, all in all, and it would take a lot of effort to overturn this nonsense, and the parasitic CE companies would fight tooth and nail to keep their sinecures. The rest of us have jobs and mortgages and such, so we continue paying the eighty bucks and pretending to learn about the challenges of giving ursodiol to someone with a specific kind of gallstone. As long as they don’t make it too onerous or too expensive, we’ll find it simpler to tolerate their sucker-marks on our flanks than to rub those flanks against the fence to scrape them off.

    And so on. Okay, I’ve pissed and moaned enough.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Yep I think pretty much all continuing education is pretty much the same. I am a CPA, and need 120 hours of CE over three years. Since I have pay for and pass tests (or show up for the live ones), I do try to spend the time actually learning something. But this learning has nothing to do with my actual job. It just has to be something finance related, so I take classes in things I am most interested in, not in my job.

  38. IsmiratSeven says:

    bulls**t

    I really wish you wouldn’t do this, Scott. It drags the tone way down and reads like something you’d come across on MySpace, or, even more low-brow, network TV.

    If you could spend a fraction of the time you invest in “content warnings” into coming up with actual euphemisms for words you’ve decided to cede to the search algorithms / work-filters that be, I think we’d all be a lot better off. How about “bull-pucky”? Or, as an English comp teacher might lead, “what aspect of the job makes it that way? Use that word instead”.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      > “bull-pucky”

      Using words like this would be much, much worse than using proper words like “bullshit”. I’m glad Scott didn’t go down this route.

      Edit: If it’s good enough for a professor emeritus of philosophy at multiple Ivy Leagues, as well as for the New York Times best-seller list, then, I think, the word “bullshit” is good enough for us.

      • IsmiratSeven says:

        I’m assuming that actually writing out the word like an adult is out of the question, as obviously that would be the best policy. Note the implied qualification (“words you’ve decided to cede to the search algorithms / work-filters that be”).

        I think Scott’s excuse is the latter – that certain content filters might auto-block based on common swear words, and he doesn’t want to inconvenience the five or six readers who read from work, have a particularly onerous content filter, and can’t either sneak around their content-filter or just read on their phone/tablet/whatever over their own 3G/4G.

  39. Jiro says:

    There was discussion of bulls**t jobs on the slatestarcodex subreddit in response to a Bloomberg article about Graeber’s book. A lot of posters tore it apart. The idea of a “bulls**t job” is vague, and prone to mottes and baileys, and Graeber’s list of bulls**t jobs includes a number of obviously-not-bulls**t jobs where Graeber just doesn’t understand that paper-pushing is a necessary job function. (Really, the world would work fine if there were no actuaries?)

    I suggest reading at least the following comments from that thread: this, this, this.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Thank you Jiro, those links were interesting.

    • SamChevre says:

      I’m an actuary, and I think actuaries do important work–but I also think we do a lot of work that is locally necessary, but globally useless (thanks albatross for a good description).

      Appropriately estimating “what are my accrued liabilities” is important, and makes a real difference. Making sure that the subsidiary and affiliate structure works well with the arbitrary metrics used by regulators doesn’t add any global value–it’s just an arms race.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      I guess this needs to be stated somewhere in this comment section:
      – None of the people you linked, and apparently none of the people in this comment section actually read the book (forgive me if I missed your contribution, potential actually-reads-books-person, ignorant posts stand out more).
      – And I know this because nobody ever addresses examples from the book, which, yes, consist of people (and, in some cases, entire departments) with literally nothing to do, forced to invent tasks for themselves to justify their existence. Or with people meaningfully working one hour a day (or week) forced (by their pride, or by explicit orders/bullying of superiors) to spend the rest of their working hours keeping up appearances. Instead they complain about actuaries, a claim which Graeber already retracted in the book.
      – The entire critique boils down to a circular “Graeber’s claims would mean our economic system is inefficient, but that cannot be true because capitalism is efficient by definition, so surely he’s wrong”. (As a sidenote, Graeber’s not even attacking capitalism, in that he theorizes our modern corporate hierarchy isn’t even capitalism anymore.) There’s no content to those, they’re a statement of faith, not reason.
      – Oh, and the critique requires adopting the stance of “I know more about your job than you, person actually doing the job.” Not terribly reassuring about epistemological humility of the person expressing it.

      In conclusion, everyone, please read the book before talking about it? (No, a mainstream press review, or a short opinion piece from several years ago are not reasonable substitutes.) Everyone? Scott? Pretty please?

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t think people are claiming there is no such thing as a bullshit job or that a proportion of the working day is not spent doing stuff other than work. But if Graeber is using as an example of a bullshit job “I’m a corporate lawyer but I’d much rather be an unsuccessful musician bumming around”, then that’s crap. The unsuccessful musician, if he can’t manage to wangle a living some way out of it by ekeing out a living from day-jobs/mundane work as well as playing gigs, is just as much a bullshit job as the corporate lawyer shuffling paper, the only difference is the musician guy gets to self-indulge about being a creative spiritual type superior to the rat-race paper pushers.

        • cryptoshill says:

          The other difference is that the rat race paper pusher corporate lawyer gets to self-indulge about how much richer and more successful he is than the musician guy.

        • Hoopdawg says:

          The point is, he’s using no such example in the book. (And to the extent that he makes tangential arguments to the effect of “[artists] have more value than [corporate type job]”, they’re way more sophisticated.)

          The wider point is, again, that people argue with Graeber’s claims not knowing what they actually are. Arguing with the article, which ostensibly had a much different epistemic status than the book, would have been justified before the book’s release. It just isn’t anymore.

  40. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    What’s Graeber’s story on productivity and GDP stats?

    Is it
    a) that they’re a lie, bullshit jobs are tanking real production, and it’s some sort of big con that the countries that Actually Make Stuff keep putting said stuff on boats to the US?
    Or B), that they’re accurate but we’d have the same GDP if all the bullshit jobs were gone, meaning productivity of non-bullshit workers is actually way way higher than official productivity? If so, is there a good story on how trends in admin jobs align with trends in GDP growth?

    In either case, why didn’t the Soviet Union eat our lunch?

  41. brianmcbee says:

    A place I used to work used open-plan offices, as is so common nowadays. The cubical farm modular furniture they used allowed the desk/table to be adjusted to any height. Several people wanted their desktop to be at standing height, so the company made a rule that required a note from a doctor before you could have the desk top at that height.

    I have no idea what the reasoning was behind this one.

    Eventually they relented and allowed everybody to have whatever height they wanted.

    • Deiseach says:

      so the company made a rule that required a note from a doctor before you could have the desk top at that height.

      I have no idea what the reasoning was behind this one

      Possibly CYA if one of the people who had a standing desk then started calling in sick and complaining that they suffered dreadful back pain from standing at their desk all day? If the company can put it back on them that “no, you’re the one insisted on having this”, then they can dodge some liability.

  42. heuristocrat says:

    Bullshit jobs expand in companies with their success and over time. For example IBM was on a roll for over a decade and hired people like crazy – they all needed something to do so IBM created new “jobs” as fast as they could, any idea for a new job or job type seemed like a good one.

    Fast forward to the end of the good times and IBM had to cut staff. The first wave or two culled 50,000 people (!) and it made absolutely *no* difference in the day to day operations of the company. They were all doing BS jobs often coded as “staff” types of assignments. They went on to cut another 25,000 after they noticed the first cuts had no impact on operations – except massive reductions in cost of course.

    Many jobs today get added due to some new “rule” – sometimes legal, compliance, tracking, insurance or whatever. But the new rules get piled on to old ones which never go away. So this creep of BS job growth keeps grinding away.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      When layoffs come and some idiot decides that “all departments must cut proportionally” no matter their worth to the company, then every department packs on deadweight they can cut with no remorse. This also leads to the company needing to do layoffs.

  43. jeray2000 says:

    I think part of the problem is that a group(group being any sort of group with more than 25 people that doesn’t like being sued really) goes through a 1-in-a-million type problem with significant consequences, and then they pull out all the stops to make sure it doesn’t happen again, even though in all likelihood it won’t happen again. But pulling out the stops to make sure it won’t happen again is totally reasonable, because there’s no way to tell if it’s an unlikely 1-in-a-1000 type event or 1-in-a-million type event, besides assuming the former is more likely since the event did actually happen once. And because there are many different types of 1-in-a-million bad events, a few of them do happen, and there’s a lot of wasted resources because of it.

  44. b_jonas says:

    I have taken my own exercise ball to both my previous job and my current job. I asked for permission before I did that, just to make sure that it’s allowed, but I didn’t need to do anything special like a doctor’s note. These are both IT jobs in _small_ IT companies, with about 45 and 25 employees at the time I took the ball in. I wasn’t the only one who brought in the exercise ball. I had the office chair they supplied taken away to storage, because it would be an obstacle in the small rooms to have both that and my exercise ball. I wrote my name on the exercise ball with a permanent marker to make it clearr that it’s mine, and, surprisingly, that remained readable for a very long time, so I rewrote it only once every two years.

    That said, those companies _would_ have had a good reason to restrict custom chairs.

    The reason is that workers don’t always sit at the same place. Sometimes they have to go to another room to talk to a co-worker for an extended time. Sometimes they even have to go to another room and sit at the desk with a laptop computer for an extended time. In these cases, they usually borrow a chair that’s already in the room and isn’t currently in use. That’s much easier that carrying your chair with you everywhere. But not everyone likes to sit on an exercise ball. Not everyone likes to sit on the same type of fancy extra-comfortable chair. So if there were too many custom chairs, then people temporarily in another rooms would have to waste a lot of time bringing their custom chairs with them.

    Also, in my previous job, during the five years I worked there, I had to relocate to a different room in the same office building no less than six times. Four of these were moving from the second storey to the fifth storey or back. Relocating always took quite some time, because I had to take three trips to carry the desktop computer I use, the monitor I use, miscellaneous bits of computer accessories, all my personal belongings, and my exercise ball. The exercise ball is the bulkiest, so it’s what caused one extra trip, and I had to remember which staircase to use for the fifth floor, because the ball wouldn’t fit through the door between the fifth floor and the other staircase, for it’s a double-wing door with one wing almost always locked. I did all of the relocation in company time, including carrying the exercise ball.

    —–

    I also did some fighting for the right to sit at a better desk. This was harder. They still never asked for a doctor’s note, because they knew those are worthless, I could have gotten a doctor to write any reasonable note I want. By better desk, I mean any desk other than the ones that are only 0.6 meters deep and has a vertical panel at its back side, so I can’t push the monitor farther back than the back of the desk, which resulted in me either sitting too close to the monitor or too far from the desk. (The monitors have a huge base for some reason.) There were enough better desks at the company, already theirs, even unused ones in storage, and the better desks didn’t take up too much space in the rooms or anything like that. At one point, a superior insisted that the four or five desks in any one room must be the same type, but didn’t give me a reason why. It took over four years until someone told me a partial workaround for the bad desks: I could get permission to remove the back panel of the desk, since it wasn’t an element that was structurally supporting the desk, as long as I made sure the screws won’t be lost so the next person to use the desk could reinstall the back panel if they wished to.

    The rest of the time when I needed some convenience item from the job, I didn’t need to fight to get it, I just had to wait for months until it got approved. This happened when I asked for window blinds, cheap ones, because the sun was glaring in my eyes, or an SD card reader that I really needed for work (a really cheap one would do, they bought a fancy expensive one that by the way couldn’t read micro-SD cards despite my explicit instructions), paper towels, dish-washing soap, forks, and a new electric kettle. I won the fight with the forks: I saw the cc of the internal mail to the bosses to approve the cost of new forks, and I pointed out that we could just buy the same type of forks I bought for home from Tesco, since they already regularly brought all the cleaning supplies from Tesco, so they changed the application to the nicer forks that cost quarter the price of the ones they suggested each, and could buy twice the quantity they originally intended to buy. I also succeeded with the new electric kettle, because I managed to ask for a new one a few months before the one we had went completely broken. There were also fights I gave up, sometimes before even starting, and bought cheap stuff for my own money so as to not have to convince the company to buy it. I bought two cheap plastic food covers for microwaving food, and a DVI cable (wrote my name on that one).

  45. Thegnskald says:

    I think many bullshit jobs are better regarded as makework jobs for reserve staffing.

    I think the issue arose in the 90s, particularly; the new thing was laying off the 50% of the workforce that is unnecessary 80% of the time. The issue is that you do need them the other 20% of the time.

    Middle management, whose job it is to make sure that jobs get done, have a hard time justifying staff that aren’t doing anything at whatever time upper management happens to be looking. So they got creative, and started creating bullshit work to occupy their idle workforce.

    Then, when crunch times hit, suddenly the bullshit work vanishes, all the excess staff are redirected to the work that needs to be done, and… things get done. And the staff are redirected to makework once crunch time ends, so they can continue appearing busy and necessary.

    (Of course, middle management doesn’t actually need to know that this is what they are doing – it is entirely possible that they think the bullshit is necessary for whatever reason, and it just happens that the companies that do well are the ones who have this excess staffing. So companies with cultures that include the bullshit survive situations that tank companies that don’t have this culture. Which means that some of the bullshit employees might never get reassigned, since nobody understands that they aren’t doing meaningful work – all that is actually necessary is that enough of them are available to do the necessary work when it needs doing, and are allocated to it.)

    ETA:

    Although I think a lot of middle management does actually understand this. This particular kind of waste seems really prevalent in bureaucracy; it is closely related to the “Spend your budget or you lose it” waste. And the worst part is that companies are most likely to look for excess employees precisely when the reserve staff have nothing to do.

    Another recent thread of discussion recently was in backroom IT, and how software solutions aren’t nearly as interchangeable as you might think. Staff are the same way; in theory, a data entry person is interchangeable with any other data entry person. In practice, something as simple as a call center employee requires specific training in the specific type of calls they will be handling, and if they aren’t trained correctly, it creates shitloads of work downstream fixing all the business rule logic that then gets routinely broken over the completely-irrelevant-to-an-outsider differences that business rules are built upon.

    • baconbits9 says:

      I agree with this, you can see it clearly on small scales. Bakeries where I worked had obvious busy seasons around holidays. Demand the week before Christmas was roughly as much as total demand in Jury (even with all those rolls for the 4th of July), and simply adding seasonal workers while carrying a skeleton crew would have been inefficient in a lot of ways especially when reliability is at a premium. So summers were when the owners took their vacations, hourly workers could take unpaid time off easily and there was way more socializing at leaving work early.

      • Thegnskald says:

        I worked in an IT contracting company; same pattern. At the start of the year, budgets are fat, so we got lots of business. In the middle of the fiscal year, enough budget has been spent that they start getting thrifty, saving budgets in case they need it for an emergency. Then there is another glut at the end of the year when everybody finishes spending their budgets. There was often nothing to do all summer long – and if we were staying busy in the summer, it was an immediate hiring crunch, because we would be overloaded come November if we hadn’t already hired up.

    • Deiseach says:

      the new thing was laying off the 50% of the workforce that is unnecessary 80% of the time. The issue is that you do need them the other 20% of the time.

      Which is stupid in cases where the excess workforce isn’t simply warm bodies lifting and carrying things (as in seasonal work where you need a whole lot of extra cashiers in supermarkets, people to deliver Christmas post, etc.) since you generally will need to train in people to do the tasks the way you need them done, and you will waste a lot of time hiring on new people, training them in, and then letting them go to rinse and repeat all over again.

      We have panels, for instance, where jobs are advertised and interviews done to put people on a panel. We may not need them right now, but when we do need them (staff illness, maternity leave, this week happens to be the one week all the kids are attending plus new ones starting and so on) then we need reliable, qualified staff this minute. Because of regulations and all the rest of it, the ideal is to get someone from the panel who has worked for us before and knows the ropes already, else you spend at least two full days simply showing them round and training them in on all the stuff that health’n’safety and other regulatory bodies require training in before you can even let them into a classroom.

      I think there’s also a confusion between “bullshit makework” and “jobs that need to be done but aren’t urgent so they’re left lying around”. Often this is stuff like “we have two boxes of old files that need to be shredded since they’ve gone past the limit data retention says we can keep them, but nobody has the time to do that”, so when we get students in on work experience, they get this kind of “do the filing/shredding/small jobs that have been lying around for ages”. You can say “that’s bullshit makework” but it’s the kind of thing that needs to be done, it’s just that it’s not urgent enough to pull a full-time worker off to do it.

  46. cuke says:

    Sometimes psychologists get asked for these kinds of letters by patients who have no MD in their life, so we are potentially on even thinner ice. Those letters look something like this:

    “Mr. X indicates experiencing back pain at work which I observe to be contributing to work-related stress. I support his request to try bringing his own chair to work.”

    I’ve done this in situations where people have a medical diagnosis(say fibromyalgia) from a doctor who they aren’t seeing anymore, so what I can say is that the patient-reported condition is a source of stress (or I might use the word anxiety where appropriate), which I am legitimately allowed to assess.

    Obviously if HR is specifying a note from an MD this doesn’t work, but they don’t always care who the letter is from — it’s not as formal as a disability determination. Nurse practitioners write these kinds of notes as well.

  47. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Scott: If you’re curious about bullshit jobs, maybe put “is your job bullshit” on the survey?

  48. AlesZiegler says:

    I actually work (among other things) in compliance sector, and I would suggest that one important reason for on the first glance absurd rules like preventing employees from bringing their own chairs to office is unsettling question of what would happen if they don´t take their chairs home after they are no longer employed there. Should it be sent to them, to their home? Should it be inventorized and added to company property? If so, is there even account in balance sheet for this? Or should it be ecologically liquidated? For people whose job is taking inventory of office equipment and checking whether it isn´t stolen or damaged those questions could be quite challenging, since they usually aren´t exactly intelectual giants.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Some companies actually do have an account item for this. I know of one company with an employee-only store where they sell off all the unclaimed property that accumulates. (They also sell all their own stuff they don’t need anymore there. During the switch to modern TVs, I got an enormous 50+” cathode ray tube TV for $40. I could have completely outfitted a home office if I had had one when I worked there with their office furniture for about $100.)

    • Said Achmiz says:

      When I read Scott’s post, I spent a couple of minutes, as a silly mental exercise, thinking of some potential reasons why a company might want to prevent employees from bringing their own chairs. I was prepared to consider bad or stupid reasons as well as good ones, so the list I came up with included things like “but this would mess up the aesthetics of the office, or make the place look less professional” as well as things like “what if someone else sits on the chair and it breaks and they fall, is the company liable for that”.

      I confess that I failed to come up with anything even close to so mind-bogglingly lame a reason as “but what do we do with the chairs after the person quits”.

      I mean… really?! Who cares! Pick some solution, write it into company policy, and you’re done! “The employee retrieves the chair before leaving for the last time, else we discard it” is perfectly workable, for example. “Should it be inventorized and added to company property? If so, is there even account in balance sheet for this?” —add one! “Or should it be ecologically liquidated?” —companies somehow manage to throw out other things; no doubt they can figure out how to get rid of a goddamn chair. (And what if it just hangs out, around the office? Is that the end of the world?)

      I find absolutely shocking and appalling the idea that it is anything other than a criminal level of callousness and disregard for the well-being of their employees, for a company to forbid said employees from bringing in their own chairs because of the “unsettling question” (!!!) of what to do with the chair later.

    • b_jonas says:

      Oh! This sounds reasonable.

      At my previous job, we had a shelf in the kitchen for the employee’s private foodstuff and tea. Close to the start of my job, I accidentally hit a bag of breakfast oatmeal and spilt it and a wasted a significant quantity from it. I didn’t know whose it was, so I put the whole thing in a second bag, and put a letter in it apologizing for spilling it, with my name and date. I wasn’t worried, after all, in the worst case I’d just pay for or buy a new bag if they asked for it. During the five years I worked there, I eventually realized that whoever owned that oatmeal had left the company before that happened, and they left the oatmeal there. When I finally left the company, the double-bagged oatmeal with my apology letter was still there untouched. Nobody dared to throw it out, since oatmeal stored properly doesn’t spoil quickly, and nobody stole it, even when I told some coworkers that it was clearly unclaimed.

  49. notpeerreviewed says:

    Jobs David Graeber thinks are bullsh*t:
    – Washing dogs.
    – Delivering pizza at night.
    – Corporate law.
    – Academic and health administration.
    – Human resources.
    – Professional work.
    – Managerial work.
    – Clerical work.
    – Sales work.
    – Service work.
    – Frying fish.
    – Whatever the verb is for what bailiffs do.

    Jobs David Graeber thinks aren’t bullsh*t:
    – Factory work.
    – Farming.
    – Making cabinets.
    – Composing unsuccessful poetry and music.
    – Teaching.
    – Dock work.
    – Writing science fiction.
    – Playing ska music.
    – Being an anthropology professor (implied).

    Some of these opinions are probably defensible.

    • Matt M says:

      bailiffing? engaging in bailiffication? bailiffactory services?

    • cryptoshill says:

      I think this shows a high amount of prejudice towards things he likes and away from things he doesn’t like. A lot of the jobs in the top function are a merger of “mission critical functions without which our society would collectively go extinct because we decided to wear pants on our heads one day and walk into traffic” variety, mixed with “I am not only angry that I am required to do this. I am angry that *anyone in the immediate vicinity* is required to do this” type jobs.

      Also “washing dogs” is bullshit? Why? Are other forms of cleaning bullshit? Delivery driving? Did people stop needing to eat while he was in grad school?

      • baconbits9 says:

        No man, you could just like pick up the pizza yourself! Driving between the pizza place and your house isn’t a job unless you get paid for it.

        • cryptoshill says:

          Every job in the history of humanity is the intersection of “yes I can, but I would like if someone else did it for me” coupled with “how can I convince someone else to do this for me?”

  50. Matt says:

    I will claim that I once worked a BS job.

    Before and during my undergrad years, I worked in construction (framing houses). Hard work, stayed busy, progress was obvious. The value of that job was clear. Due to difficulty scheduling coursework around classes and bad luck with weather sometimes severely impacting my paycheck (for instance – I scheduled classes M/W/F and worked T/Th – rain on Tuesday would cut my paycheck in half for the week) I decided to seek out a job that was part-time and weatherproof.

    I got a job delivering office supplies for a very office supply store that offered free delivery. They had a showroom with desks/chairs/filing cabinets, etc. They had 2 delivery vans, one full-time delivery guy and two part-timers (I was one). Office staff was about 6 people. The full-time delivery guy and the other part-time guy had morning shifts, each did half of the city. I shared the afternoons with the the full-timer.

    They never (and I mean NOT ONE DAY) kept me busy for my entire shift (1pm-5pm). Typically I was given about 45 minutes of actual work. Unspoken policy was that the delivery guys should clock in, do their deliveries, and stay out until the end of the shift. The first couple of days I came back to clock out when finished, then I asked to clean the warehouse a couple of days, and afterwards it was just implied heavily that I should just sit in the van and wait for 4:45 before I came back. I honestly don’t think there was single day where the business’s cut on my deliveries would have paid for my four hours. They had to be bleeding money, I guess hoping business would turn around… So you could argue that the business was protecting its brand of offering free and quick (twice a day!) delivery of pens and copy paper and filing cabinets and I was necessary for that function. But I don’t think you could argue that they were right to do so.

    I quit in about 3 months, mostly because I felt useless and the office staff felt entitled to call us lazy. Went back to construction until I had progressed enough into my undergrad to get an engineering co-op job.

    Within maybe a year the place was shuttered.

    • Matt M says:

      I don’t think that’s a BS job. That’s just a company that sucks at managing their workforce utilization.

      The actual job (delivering office supplies) was necessary and added value. The schedule might have been BS, but the job wasn’t.

      • Matt says:

        Maybe we have an issue with definitions?

        I say if you have enough work for 4 people and you’ve got 8 people assigned to it, you’ve got 4 BS jobs, even if the work is necessary and adds value.

        • Matt M says:

          I guess so. My conception of a “BS job” is a job that is entirely useless/without merit. That is to say, even in the “best case scenario” when you’re doing things exactly correct and are at your maximum productivity, nothing truly useful is being accomplished.

          • Matt says:

            Thanks. Suddenly a lot of the comments above make much more sense to me.

            I agree that it could be hard to determine if your job is BS if you have incomplete insight into how your actions bring about a benefit.

            If, on the other hand, you get paid for taking no actions at all, (particularly if you know how your job would be different if you had work to do) then I think the job might be BS.

            My stepmother had a job as a security guard at a shuttered factory. Basically she walked the property all night to deter vandals, probably primarily to protect the company from liability should a vandal injure himself. I’m sure she felt like it was a BS job, but for the company, it was no doubt cheaper than leveling the place.

          • Matt M says:

            Right. I mean, my personal belief is that there is no such thing as a BS job by this definition.

            If a job was truly BS, nobody would be willing to pay you for it.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Having the manpower for something to happen right now is valuable. Economists call it option value.

          As you get rid of these full-time and part-time “bullshit jobs” we get more of a gig economy where someone would be “Uber for furniture delivery.” The gig economy tends to be crueler to workers than regular employment so I would super totally love it if the people who claim to be pro-labor stop trying to get the meme of “bullshit jobs” to stick in anybody’s head.

          • Matt M says:

            Heh. They think the BS jobs will be replaced by some sort of generous welfare system, or perhaps meaningful six-figure jobs.

            In reality they will be replaced with below-the-API tasks that are far worse and less remunerative than the previous BS.

      • baconbits9 says:

        The most BS job I have ever heard about was an HVAC employee who had been hired to work on a semi sensitive government building. Due to some bureaucracy the HVAC system he was hired to install was not being installed now (or in the foreseeable future). He was not let go though, but was given no other work to do. His “job” consisted of showing up every day, going through security where all his devices were taken away and stored for him and going into an “office” (folding table and chair) where he would sit until lunch, return from lunch and sit until it was clock out time. He was permitted to bring books in, so he basically read a book a day for the 2 years he “worked” there.

      • Deiseach says:

        Agreed. The job was only BS because the company simply didn’t have the volume of business to justify having three deliverymen. Two part-timers might have worked better, or just having one full-time guy until they picked up enough business to need another person to cover.

        Sounds like they were trying to stand out and drum up business by “free instant delivery!” but generally it’s not that urgent to get your photocopier paper and pens delivered today instead of tomorrow (sometimes it is, but that’s not frequent enough to be a sustainable source as the company found out).

    • Mark Atwood says:

      I would have “stolen an education”.

      e.g. park the van someplace, and used all that time to do all the homework, textbook study, required reading, and exam drills. Added some more classes or better yet remote or learn-by-mail courses. And read a lot more books.

  51. Aqua says:

    If the back test really is as simple as “bend this way and that, did it hurt??”

    Why don’t you just learn what you are supposed to do, do it over the phone, and your bases are covered.

  52. Urthman says:

    This sort of “just state the facts” strategy can also work really well as a tactful alternative to white lies when you don’t know what to say in response to someone’s actions that you don’t really approve of.

    “You got your hair cut!”
    “You’re getting married!”
    “I’ve never seen a tattoo like that before.”
    “You rearranged the office. There’s more space now.”

  53. BBA says:

    To those who say it’s about liability: maybe it’s about perceived liability but in most cases on-the-job injuries are covered by workers’ comp, which every employer in 49 out of 50 states has to pay for (congratulations for being the odd one out, Texas). If people are getting injured often enough in an office job to hike up your premiums, you’re doing something wrong.

    If there’s anyone from New Zealand here, I’d like to know if there’s similar bullshit in corporate cultures there, as they have abolished tort liability entirely in favor of a universal no-fault system. I bet even in that paradise they have to deal with corporate bureaucrats.

  54. nestorr says:

    >I usually treat patients via telemedicine

    I don’t know why but I’m obscurely disappointed by this

  55. J says:

    You’re thinking of a Wendigo. A lumbago is a large recreational vehicle.

  56. idontknow131647093 says:

    Drunk Thread

    I often find all the worst jobs that people claim are terrible to be my dream job, if they paid enough. For instance, I would mine coal all day with a pickaxe and I would love it, given it paid enough. I would fire people all day. I would resolve Title IX disputes all day. I would shovel manure all day. In fact, IMO, most low paying jobs that people consider “terrible” are actually the best jobs in the world, just with bad pay. If all jobs paid the same, I presume like 95% of people would apply to be landscapers. Landscaping is clearly the best job in the world, except for the shit pay.

    Please feel free to respond with any drunk thoughts.

    • Matt M says:

      Not drunk, but back when I was a consultant and making pretty good money, a lot of my coworkers would occasionally complain about some of the more boring and mundane aspects of the job.

      My response was usually something like “Man, for the amount of money we’re making, I’d clean toilets if they asked me to!”

      (Although they did eventually find something I wouldn’t do – work for a particularly arrogant jerk of a boss, which ultimately led me to quit rather than put up with him)

      • cryptoshill says:

        The management speak here is “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses” – someone who might have worked for a company productively and kept trying to be better, advance in the corporate structure, etc for 20 years decides it isn’t worth it because there’s a capricious jerk as his immediate superior.

        • baconbits9 says:

          That’s not always a bad thing though, my wife moved management roles last January and took on a new team. One of her new DRs asked a now former DR what to expect, he replied pointedly “you are actually going to have to do your work”. New DR found a new job in a matter of months.

          And since I have mentioned my in-laws cleaning business a few times recently, their method for employees not getting their jobs done well (either fast enough or to the client’s satisfaction) was for my FIL to follow them for one night explaining how everything was to be done, and watching them do it. They claimed a 90%+ success rate of people either quitting or improving from one visit.

          • cryptoshill says:

            I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Although something like “you are actually going to have to do your work” implies that the new DR already wasn’t pulling their weight and was looking for a place in the organization to relax and successfully ward of evil spirits for a living. Either that or just didn’t understand the corporate culture there.

  57. beej67 says:

    ON BACK PAIN

    I crushed my L1 vertebrae in a car accident when I was 18 years old. 30 degree compression fracture, that healed back funny. I was in a ’72 VW bug, she was in a Buick, I bent the steering wheel with my face. Good times all around.

    I had back pain all through my 20s and into my early 30s. Then a friend changed my life. He said, “let’s go to the gym for 3 days a week, for 3 months, and I’ll teach you how to do deadlifts.”

    Deadlifts can be really bad for you if you use improper form. We started with a 45lb bar with no weight on it, which was embarrassing considering I was in the gym at 5:30am with a bunch of strippers that had just gotten off work at the titty bar across the street. It was a month before we upped to putting any weights on the bar at all. After the initial establishment of proper form, I slowly increased to putting two 45lb plates on it, and haven’t tried for increased weight since. Two sets of 15 reps each.

    It has completely changed my life, and I haven’t had back pain in about a decade.

    The truth about your skeleton is it’s not supposed to hold your weight. It’s just a frame to hold your muscles in place. Your muscles carry the weight. I feel relatively confident after my experience that all back surgeries are a sham and that pretty much everyone with back pain could solve it by learning how to do deadlifts properly. YMMV.

  58. googolplexbyte says:

    Isn’t the bullshit an extension of it being difficult to get employees not to be counterproductive?

  59. yossarian says:

    >> In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable?

    First, as I like to say to the various social-darwinists and such – evolution ain’t your bitch. What is valuable for you doesn’t have to be what is valuable to the company, and the company is prone to evolve under the pressure of external factors, and the most efficient thing to do in a market is to control that market and yadda yadda yadda.

    Second, there exists an external pressure to any person to get a job (as in, not to starve to death). Therefore, a person without one will seek any job it can find, no matter whether it’s meaningful or not. A person can even create a new type of business that is really meaningless and manage to make people think it’s somehow attractive.

    Third, tradition. There is a whole shitload of people, for example, in the business of making and selling ties. It’s like, are you fraggin’ serious? How can wearing a small rag around your neck make you a better business partner? And yet, here we are

    Fourth, overcomplications that serve to benefit the people who specialize in it. Honestly, I think the whole practice of lawyery should be banned, as in, if you don’t understand whether you are commiting a crime or not without hiring a lawyer – you should not be held responsible for whatever you do.

    • Cliff says:

      “if you don’t understand whether you are commiting a crime or not without hiring a lawyer – you should not be held responsible for whatever you do.

      “Says someone who is completely clueless about law and lawyers

      • yossarian says:

        Bah ) It was a drunk comment, but still, don’t you think it’s rather convenient to have a special caste of people who get to interpret the law and work it for us mere mortals and who get to that stage by passing an expensive education and whatever… rather convenient for members of said caste?

  60. Cliff says:

    I think approximately zero jobs are “bullshit jobs” and the op-ed in Communist magazine or whatever it was that you linked to certainly did not persuade me otherwise. The author knows some nameless “corporate attorneys” who think their job is completely useless? Frankly I am baffled as to how anyone could think that, let alone someone actually working as a corporate attorney- negotiating and structuring transactions, ensuring compliance with legal obligations, evaluating legal risks to the company. I assure you that if all corporate attorneys could be fired, they would be.

    • Harsh But True says:

      I beg to disagree. I currently have the most non-bullshit job I can imagine (I’m a lead programmer on a major studio computer game). In my many decade life, I have worked hard at many (most?) bullshit jobs to get here.
      How did I get here?
      I stayed in school. I sucked up. I smiled and pretended I could. I am white, male, middle class. My mom is a librarian. My dad is an engineer. I didn’t look around at people without these advantages without appreciating that I had a leg up.
      I read Iain Banks instead of Ayn Rand. I had three sisters and many friends who worked union jobs (who are all successful despite none of the above), so I never took the world as owing me shit for granted.
      Most everyone I know never gets another option except to play the cards they are dealt. Stop for a moment and think what you would do if no one paid for your law school for you, or you were disabled, or had no support network to lift you out of the trap.
      That’s reality for most people.

  61. tvt35cwm says:

    The concept of guard labor seems relevant.

    Guard labor is any job which does not directly contribute to the organization’s production, but ensures that production can take place. Thus: security guards, police, firemen, soldiers (the latter three considered as working for “the government”); but also managers, HR, accounting, the insurance industry, receptionists, IT people (excepting a few hardware and software designers, programmers and testers), licensing inspectors, and more.

    Thanks to the incredible productivity of fossil fuels and to the ability of the capitalist mode of production to produce and spread productivity-enhancing innovations, we’re in a position where not much “real” (non-guard) labor is needed.

  62. Michael Handy says:

    I like to think of my job as 20% “Real Job” and 80% Box Canyon Job

    I only have my job because someone in another company has mine, and they only have their job because I work here. This is the entirety of marketing beyond “This is a product that exists. It does this.”

    In a fair amount of cases, we could agree to not compete along agreed borders, and I could watch cat videos 4 days a week, and no one would be the wiser (in a few cases where competing was ethically fraught I’ve done just that.)

  63. I’d estimate that 90% of corporate work is comprised of bullshit. It’s maddening, and makes the American Dream difficult to achieve for literalists (myself) or idealists (myself included).

  64. spencer says:

    The back pain example seems intended to represent conditions where a non-expert can correctly diagnose the problem and suggest the correct treatment. Fine, for these cases the note is bullshit. However, a non-cynical explanation for the expert diagnosis requirement is that there are situations where an expert diagnosis is needed to differentiate common/benign disorders from rare/serious disorders with similar early symptoms. For instance, many serious diseases start as flu-like symptoms, and writing a note saying “Mr. Smith describes fever and asks that he be allowed to stay home” might not be responsible. In this case, requiring a doctor’s note ensures that employees are correctly caring for themselves.

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