Doing “dirty work”?

Some of the articles I’ve recently been reading are those about people who do ‘dirty work’.  Dirty work is defined as occupations that are viewed by society at large as ‘physically, socially, or morally tainted’ (Ashforth, Kreiner, Clark and Fugate, 2007).  Although their more specific definition seems to include a large part of society that I’m not sure would actually tag themselves as doing ‘dirty work’, it’s interesting to learn more about these occupations that we may look at with the question “how do you do that every day?!”

A few examples of ‘dirty work’:

  • Physically tainted occupations associated with garbage or death: septic-tank pumpers, exterminators, slaughterhouse workers, etc.
  • Socially tainted occupations working with the more ‘challenging’ societal groups: correctional officers, welfare aid workers, psychiatric ward attendant, etc.
  • Morally tainted occupations regarded as somewhat sinful or dubious: exotic dancers, psychic healers, personal injury lawyers, etc.
  • Jobs that are thought to employ methods that are a bit sneaky, deceptive, or intrusive to others:  collection agent, tabloid reporter, parking-ticket attendants, etc.

If we spend such a big part of our lives in our working roles, how do people who do stigmatised jobs keep a positive sense of self day in and day out?   When society might look at them with an ‘I could never do that’ glare? Or for the morally tainted jobs, with that “you are the devil” glare?  How might, for example, Mr Spivey deal with the nay-sayers of the world?

The Study

This study conducted interviews with 54 managers across 18 ‘dirty occupations’ to understand some of the challenges they deal with and how they counter the societal stigma associated with their work.  For example, the researchers interviewed used-car-salesmen, exotic dancers, janitors, and abortion-clinic workers among many others. Without further rambling, here are some of the things that came out of the study.

A few challenges

  • It’s tough to be judged.  The people doing these jobs have to deal with all the regular challenges associated with any other job, like training, performance evaluation, office politics, terrible bosses, etc, but they also have to deal with the downcast looks by society.  There’s nothing like doing a job that’s made to be a laughing stock or something you should be ashamed of on TV (personal injury lawyers or used car salesmen get a pretty bad rap), or that makes people shudder when you tell them about it. That’s a lot of load on your shoulders. This makes the job even tougher than doing a more ‘normal’ job, not to mention the actual content of the job itself.
  • The job requires a unique set of skills. The content of these jobs is often very mentally or physically challenging. Dealing with death, angry or challenging people, or doing jobs that piss people off (I’ve never seen someone happy about a parking ticket, for example) requires a mental fortitude that most of us don’t have to conjure up when we get out of bed on a Monday.
  • It’s even tougher to be boss.  Not only do the supervisors have to keep themselves ‘up’ and motivated, but they have to inspire their employees and keep them motivated. That’s a tough ask.

Combatting the stigma

Interestingly however, the researchers found that those doing these jobs would actually recommend them to family or friends.  So they  looked into the ways that those who do these tough jobs handle it, and even turn it into a positive (and without the aid of a stiff drink, which seems to always fix me up after a bad day….). Below are a few things that the dirty-workers came up with:

Reframing or refocusing the job

  • Focus on the positives: They turn the job into a positive by reframing it, or focusing on the positives of the job. For example, rather than concentrating on ‘what’ they’re doing, they look at the more structural benefits of the job. Things like: flexible hours, or work-life balance opportunities. Or the positives that come from the job; how would we have meat without abattoirs? Many ‘dirty work’ occupations play a huge role in supporting society.

Social buffering

  • Make friends who do the same thing: Other people who do the same job can understand the challenges and provide social support.  Nothing like a little group hug; you’re not alone.  Think national conventions and associations (which are really just code for industry parties, right?)

Defensive tactics

  • Confronting others: These people were prone to putting others in their place (sometimes through dark or sarcastic humour) when they made rude or judgemental comments.
  • Biting back:  Some interviewed took a negative view of those who looked negatively at their profession. Things like: “Others are judgemental and falsely informed of what we do, it’s their problem not ours.”
  • Avoidance:  Simply avoiding dealing with comments or stigma by not telling others the specifics about what you do.  For example, a medical staff member at an abortion clinic simply told others that she was a “physicians assistant working in womens health”. Easier than dealing with the confrontation with strangers. My favourite reframe of all time was when an ex-boyfriend called himself a ‘petroleum transfer technician’. Sounds pretty fancy right?  See definition:
  • Social comparison:  Taking a look at some of the even ‘dirtier’ occupations and thinking “well at least I’m not doing that“. For example, a person working in animal testing for medical research might look at someone who does animal testing for product research (e.g. makeup) and say “wow, what they do is terrible”.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger:  So, if you work as a collection agent and must go in and ‘collect’ peoples’ personal things  you may say something like “it’s not me they’re mad at, it’s the bank. I’m just the messenger”. This is about separating yourself from the work, you’re just the conduit, you dont make the decisions.

So there you have it – the world of ‘dirty work’. Although I’m not such a fan of the expression, something about it is enticing and a bit exciting, isn’t it?

For the actual research studies, see:

(1)  Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., Clark, M. A., & Fugate, M. (2007). Normalizing dirty work: Managerial tactics for countering occupational taint. Academy of Management Journal, 50(1), 149.

(2) Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). How can you do it?”:  Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434.


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