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Overworked? How to Get Even

Corinne Maier, a part-time economist at the government-owned Electricit? de France would seem an unlikely global phenomenon. But the 40-year-old mother of two has become just that since penning her Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness), an ode to corporate nihilism.

A surprise bestseller, the 137-page manifesto extols the virtues of workplace idleness and asks corporate drones: "Why work until you drop?" -- encouraging readers to take advantage of companies that have been taking advantage of them.

Maier's Big Business pillorying comes at a time of rampant corporate malfeasance (Enron, Tyco, WorldCom...) and employee malaise. A recent survey reported that American employees waste an average of two hours a day on nonwork-related activity. Clearly, she has struck a nerve.

The book, which prompted threats of dismissal from her job, is sold in 19 countries, with 600,000 copies purchased worldwide. An English version, Bonjour Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder (Pantheon Books) arrived on American shores in June.

As Maier awaits possible disciplinary action regarding her subversive, wildly popular book, BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke with her by phone about company disloyalty, how to look like you're productive at the office when you're really not, and why small businesses are often exceptions to the rule. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How did you come to write such a book?

A: I thought it would be funny to write a very impertinent book about big companies that flies in face of self-important managers and makes people laugh and think about how we work in big structures.

Q: What do you think is the biggest difference between French and American workers?

A: In the U.S., people think it's possible to achieve something through work. In France, we try to find a kind of balance between work and private life. But the way things work in big companies is more or less the same in France and America.

Q: Why do you propose it's in our best interest to work as little as possible?

A: I think you should save energy for more interesting things. It is useless to work in big companies. The company doesn't care. They expect you to obey and say yes and to be very much like the others.

Obedience is more important than hard work. In fact, those that do work hard are a danger to the company. Sometimes they try and change things and they don't want you to do that -- they want you to be part of the whole process.

Q: How many hours a week do you work?

A: I work 20 hours a week, part-time. The rest of the time I write books [she has penned nine], and I am a practicing psychoanalyst.

Q: In discussing Big Business, you question the devotion to the work ethic and encourage employees to do as little as possible. Are you suggesting then that nobody work?

A: I am suggesting a world where if people like what they do at work, fine. And the others should try to do the things that they really like. Maybe it's not realistic. It is called a utopia. But we can dream about that.

Q: Who then will do the jobs?

A: I don't know. That's not exactly my angle. But you will always find people who don't know the rules of the game, and even in big structures, you will find people who like working there. There are temporary workers, students, and young people who haven't yet understood.

Q: In your book, you talk about screwing the company from within. If people are dissatisfied, why don't you suggest that they just quit?

A: If you know what you want to do, then quit. But most people don't, and they don't expect anything to change. Sometimes people are interested in doing things that don't make money, like painting. In that case, I say stick to the job and just do the minimum.

It depends on how you are treated, and if you like your job or not. If you are well-treated and can do interesting things, then I say be loyal. But often this isn't the case. And if it's not, then I think you should save your energy and do things outside of work. If you have a precise idea of what you really want to be doing in life, then quit. But the first step is to stay and pretend to be working.

Q: What kind of effect will this have on a company?

A: It is difficult to say how much will it cost. But already, a lot of people don't care for companies. People are just treated as objects. We live in rich countries, so how important is it? Wages are a company's way to redistribute the wealth of the society that we live in.

Q: Small businesses represent a large portion of employment both in the U.S. and France. Do you apply the same principle of idleness among entrepreneurs and those working for them?

A: I don't think so. My book does not apply to small organizations. If you work in a company that is only five or six people, you can't follow my advice and pretend to be working, because everybody will know. If you want to follow my advice, don't work in a small company.

But if you don't like what you do, but have to because you have to earn money, then it is better to work in a big company. Generally speaking, you can hide in a big structure, and nobody knows exactly what you do.

Q: Why do you think the most ineffective people get promoted?

A: They are good at playing a role, pretending they are good at work. What they are doing is cultivating a network. In many situations, the person that gets promoted isn't the person who is doing the actual work. He is the person who sells himself, shows up all the time, is very happy to be there, agrees to everything, and speaks the jargon.

Q: Your book offers a number of tenets about how to manipulate the system and look like you're productive in the office when in fact you aren't. If you can only follow one tenet which would it be?

A: Say yes all the time. Show that you agree [with management], but that doesn't mean you will do it. Just say yes all the time.

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