What can the 1944 OSS manual teach us before we all return to sabotage the office?

Tell you what, let’s have a meeting about it

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Don’t wish me a Happy New Year: it doesn’t work. In fact, I think your annual good wishes may be hexing them.

There have always been anni beati and horribiles but things really started to go downhill after David Jones escaped back to his home planet 10 days into 2016. Since then, it has been regularly proposed that each successive year ahead couldn't possibly be worse than the previous one – which of course it proceeds to be, with extra relish.

So for 2021, please just zip it and keep your bad vibes to yourself. Those who challenge Fate with this annual dare are doomed to lose and take the rest of us with them. Instead of hoping for better things, let's get ourselves prepared for the shitstorm to come.

I don't know what new ghastly meanness this year has in store but I suspect there will continue to be governments intent on awarding public sector contracts without tender to their chums. I also fully expect private industry to take advantage of WFH to inflict reduced salaries on those not already given the boot.

I've yet to determine the logic behind the belief that those working from home should be paid less. If the trend continues beyond the pandemic, employers can close down their offices and save a bundle on furniture, equipment, floor space, insurance, power and heating. These costs won't vanish, though: they are simply passed on to the employee to fund from their own reduced earnings.

Best of all, after berating wayward minions for years that BYOD culture keeps ballsing up the smooth running of corporate systems, employers now insist that home-incarcerated wage slaves Use Entirely Their Own Devices – on their own initiative and at their own cost. Oh, and you had better get yourself the most expensive top-speed home broadband or you’re going nowhere in this company, pal.

So I reckon the first days of 2021 would be well spent genning up on some classics of 20th century anti-office literature. And the one I frequently return to in turbulent times is The Art of the Dea… heh, just joking :-) No, my perennial favourite of wilful bad practice in the workplace is the notorious Simple Sabotage Field Manual [PDF].

You may well already have stumbled across references to this brief little World War II era spycraft pocketbook ever since it was declassified in 2008 and uploaded to the web shortly afterwards by its publisher, the CIA. It had been first compiled by the CIA's precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), for its own operatives behind enemy lines. Then in 1944 it was shared with put-upon plebs in Occupied Europe to encourage ordinary citizens to destabilise the daily routine of their invading overlords in preparation for D-Day.

What makes it such a wonderful publication is that it's not aimed at underground partisans trying to blow up railways or ambush convoys. Instead, it was produced for people in everyday jobs: shopkeepers, garagists, farmers, warehouse staff, office workers and so on. That's us, that is.

The bulk of the 40-page, typewritten manual is directed at those working in industrial and agricultural environments, explaining how to allow work rooms to accidentally catch fire, put small engines out of use, render tools blunt, let down tyres, that sort of thing. There is a serious discourse on how the biggest difficulty of workplace sabotage via feigned incompetence is that it is contrary to human nature: it involves having to relearn how to achieve job satisfaction by NOT taking pride in one's work. There are also charmingly silly ideas for harmless disruptive pranks, such as collecting moths in a paper bag and then letting them loose in a cinema during Nazi propaganda reels.

Despite even such small-time industrial violence and wilful cruelty to Lepidoptera being way out of my league, this early section of the manual includes some real gems of blame-deflection advice. "Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people could be responsible" is one of my favourites, as is the contradictory: "Do not be afraid to commit acts for which you might be blamed directly, so long as you do so rarely, and as long as you have a plausible excuse."

There is an epic paragraph directed at transport workers on the art of snarling up train travel for enemy passengers. "Make mistakes in issuing train tickets […] Issue two tickets for the same seat in the train so that an interesting argument will result […] Near train time, instead of issuing printed tickets, write them out slowly by hand […] On station bulletin boards announcing train arrivals and departures, see that false and misleading information is given."

Did I say enemy passengers? Just passengers would do. The paragraph above is surely a standard clause printed in train workers' employee manuals to this very day.

The last few pages of the manual are sublime. They suggest ways that office workers can devastate company spirit and productivity without losing face: they may even gain you a promotion. It's a veritable guidebook to Bad Practice. How many of the following behaviours do you recognise in your own colleagues and line managers?

  • Insist on doing everything through "channels."
  • Make "speeches". Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.
  • Refer all matters to committees. Make the committees as large as possible – never less than five.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes and resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open discussion on those decisions.
  • Advocate "caution." Advise colleagues to "avoid haste" which "might result in embarrassment" later on.
  • Question every decision as to whether it lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

Even the lowliest office dogsbody can bring their sabotage skills to the fore:

  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can. Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary.
  • "Misunderstand" orders. Ask endless questions. Quibble over them.
  • Demand written orders.
  • Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.
  • Do your work poorly and blame it on bad equipment.
  • Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skilful worker.
  • Join or help organise a group for presenting employee problems to the management. Involve the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation. Convene more than one meeting for each grievance.

There's even a dedicated section for those in managerial positions:

  • Don't order new work materials until your current stocks have been exhausted, so that the slightest delay in fulfilling your order will mean a shutdown.
  • When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
  • Always assign unimportant jobs first. Assign important jobs to inefficient workers.
  • Insist on perfection in unimportant work. Approve defective work.
  • Be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  • Convene meetings when there is critical work to be done.

Now you know what your coworkers and bosses have been up to for all these years: they've just been following instructions from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. It explains the lack of direction, the delays in replacing obsolete but essential equipment, the last-minute decisions, the lack of interest in your proven achievements, the praise given to incompetent work by others and, not least, all those promotions of dullards over your head.

So when you're eventually invited back into the office, it can be your turn. RTFM and get prepared for 2021! Stop being productive! Destroy morale! Cock everything up, time and time again! Do all this and your promotion is assured!

Hmm, that seems a bit too daring for me. Maybe there's a simpler and quieter way of fighting the system with minor acts of sabotage for someone of my disposition. Let’s have another flick through…

Ah, here we go:

  • Forget to provide paper in toilets.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He does not seriously suggest that you indulge in such shenanigans as that listed above. He merely points out that everyone else seems to be doing it. The big question, surely, is why? More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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