Print at your own risk: 8 printer predicaments

It may seem like an innocent piece of equipment, but the office printer is often the epicenter of workplace troubles

Behold the mighty printer: integral to businesses, used by all, and skirting the edge of chaos with each paper jam, toner alert, and maintenance alert.

One little problem, and a printer can keep an IT department busy for days unraveling a hardware mystery -- or even put an employee's job at risk.

Here are some real-life stories from IT pros, published in the anonymously written InfoWorld Off the Record blog, in which a printer plays a major role.

IT pros, if you have an on-the-job experience to submit, send your story to We'll send you a $50 American Express gift cheque if we publish it.

bahri altay

Printer predicament No. 1: It's a clue, but to what?

The high-profile nature of a printer means that any problem is a big one. Users are angry, and they let IT know, yet remain unaware of what has to happen behind the scenes to get it all running smoothly.

Take, for example, the story of two printers installed at the same time. One works dependably; one doesn't. The IT department spends days reconfiguring settings, swapping out cables and ports, sitting by the printer and the queue watching the print jobs to find patterns. Bupkis.

But the printer is not the problem: It's a heretofore unknown wireless print server. Days of troubleshooting finally pay off. Yet after the heroes' efforts, nobody outside the IT department can fully appreciate the work. Users just know it's fixed.


Printer predicament No. 2: Back to the basics

Users are hovering, and if the problem isn't fixed soon it could impact the company's bottom line. The solution seems elusive, puzzling, and complicated, then turns out to be anything but.

Take the remote printer that's scheduled to process work orders overnight so that repair crews can grab them immediately the next day. This efficient and seamless system is a dream -- until it breaks.

IT runs tests and verifies the logs, but can't pinpoint the problem. Finally, someone stakes out the printer overnight. VoilÀ! The techies discover the custodial staff turns out the light when the nightly cleaning is done. In the process, they power down the printer, which is plugged into an outlet controlled by the switch. If only all solutions were so simple.

Gunnar Pippel

Printer predicament No. 3: The fallible human

Unfortunately, printers are physical, accessible objects. Users fiddle with them, load paper, change settings -- so they're automatically experts on the hardware, right?

A printer at a warehouse randomly goes out of whack, printing lines where they shouldn't be and skipping other lines where they should be. The IT pro and the foreman hatch a plan to catch the problem in action, which includes the IT pro racing 100 yards and up two flights of stairs to no avail.

Then they notice a worker go up to the printer and repeatedly press a button; a few seconds later the printer goes crazy again. When confronted, the worker explains how "pushing that button makes it print faster." Not even close, buddy.


Printer predicament No. 4: Pesky pests

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or in some cases: Cleanliness is next to not grossing out the IT person.

The call: Maintenance on a printer located in a food factory -- routine enough.

The tech's horrifying discovery: The printer is filled to the brim with cockroaches, ants, spiders, and other creepy, crawly creatures. Apparently the food particles trapped inside were tasty. Also shocking, the finding was a surprise to the factory's floor supervisor.

Tools needed: Face mask, gloves, a strong stomach, and a resolve to never return to that location again.


Printer predicament No. 5: It's not my problem

A printer problem can expose unsavory employee characteristics. One malfunction and your hard-working, conscientious colleague can be revealed as less than a model worker.

Case in point: At a steel mill with round-the-clock shifts and a problematic printer, the tech gets called in on a weekend to figure out what's going on.

Upon arrival, the tech discovers employees sitting around playing cards. As requested, he determines that one of their chair legs caught on the cord and unplugged the printer. Did any of the workers think to look at the power cord before calling the tech? "Not my job," is the reply. You'd better believe the tech billed for that call.


Printer predicament No. 6: Your rules don't apply to me

Up there with apathy is a sense of entitlement, as employees ignore rules and even lie until they get what they "need."

An IT pro is woken by a 2 a.m. call on a Saturday. After-hours calls are supposed to be for emergencies only, and the shift operator insists such is the case. He can't print his production lineup, and he got supervisor approval to make the call. Evidence suggests otherwise. The printer is flashing a message to load legal paper, and the only job in the queue is for a hockey pool schedule.

It turns out the operator never got approval and, thus, is given a few days off without pay -- little comfort for the sleepy, beleaguered IT pro.


Printer predicament No. 7: What were they thinking?

Sometimes, a printer can be the smoking gun that unmasks sleazy employee actions.

A legal secretary calls about a printer that won't print. Bad move -- for starters, she's selected the wrong printer: the one in her employer's office. Even worse, she's printing photos from a raucous pool party. The days following find HR resending policies regarding personal use of office equipment, as well as the arrival of a new legal secretary.

Then there's the teacher who often worked late. Fixing a printer, the tech finds out what kind of "work" the teacher is doing after-hours, then plays private detective and makes a report of the teacher's browsing history for the principal. Note to office workers: The printer knows all.


Printer predicament No. 8: Anger management needed

Adversity can bring out the best or worst in people, and a malfunctioning printer is certainly cause for frustration. But the workplace is not where basic anger management skills should have to be taught.

A field service tech is called to fix a customer's printer ASAP, since a deadline is looming. The tech leaves early and braves a winter storm to get to the site. Despite the extra effort, the techie gets a Marine-style dressing-down from a vice president for taking his parking space.

After a trip to the proverbial woodshed by a supervisor, the VP apologizes to the tech for his behavior. Great -- and maybe the next techie will get the benefit of the doubt without the abuse.


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