Somebody has to do it: Workers in 'dirty jobs' cope with stigma

What could an undertaker, a welfare counselor and a prostitute possibly have in common? All three are employed in occupations deemed undesirable by most people. A professor of management from the W. P. Carey School of Business joined with several colleagues to study so-called "dirty work" and the coping strategies used by workers, along with strategic approaches used by managers in "dirty" occupational fields. The researchers found that those employed in these jobs typically need to develop normalizing strategies to counter the social, physical or moral "taint" resulting from their undervalued work.

The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker engage in wholesome, respected, solid lines of work. But the trash collector, the street sweeper and the undertaker are another story. Viewed as unpleasant, menial or just plain strange, theirs are among the kinds of "dirty jobs" that someone has to do — and that inspire specific coping strategies by workers and special approaches by management, according to research by Blake Ashforth, professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

In the paper "Normalizing Dirty Work: Tactics for Countering Occupational Taint," Ashforth and three other researchers — Glen E. Kreiner of the University of Cincinnati, Mark A. Clark of American University and Mel Fugate of Southern Methodist University — interviewed managers and surveyed workers from 18 lines of dirty work. They list three kinds of taint — physical, social and moral — and say dirty work can range from relatively low-prestige (prostitutes) to relatively high-prestige fields (personal-injury lawyers) of endeavor.

"Curiously, even though people may view some forms of dirty work as not only necessary but even noble and heroic [e.g., firefighting, social services counseling], they tend to remain psychologically distanced from the work, glad that others are doing it," the study states. "The degree and/or breadth of the taint associated with the job is such that people desire to separate themselves from the work — despite perhaps feeling somewhat indebted to the noble-but-dirty worker."

  1. Occupational ideologies. For example, the unpleasant task of dogcatchers is made more acceptable when they focus on the virtue of preventing bites and rabies.
  2. Social buffers. In a positive sense, workers join a "social network" to share experiences and coping tactics; in a negative sense, high-class call girls look down on streetwalkers.
  3. Confronting clients and the public. This includes direct rebuttals (a chauffeur refusing to be treated like a servant by a client), indirect challenges through humor (a lawyer joking about the common tag of being an ambulance chaser) and counter-stereotypical behavior (a car salesman going the extra mile to be honest with customers).
  4. Defensive tactics. A janitor likes working at night because it spares him or her contact with the building occupants.

The study says dirty workers are "acutely aware" of the stigma they carry but that they need some sort of affirmation, or their job performance, commitment and sense of well-being will suffer. "An employee's ability to negotiate the stigma — and a manager's ability to facilitate that process — is therefore essential to improving important individual and organizational outcomes," states "Normalizing Dirty Work."

The researchers said 39 of the 54 managers they interviewed said society misunderstands their occupations. Managers try to remedy such misperceptions when they train new workers, help them make sense of what they are doing, teach them how to deal with outsiders' attitudes and provide role models.

"To the extent that individual normalizing tactics are in fact institutionalized at the group level, it may be largely through the efforts of managers," the study states. "Moreover, managers are typically more experienced than frontline workers and may thus serve as knowledgeable informants." Managerial guidance helps "dirty workers" rationalize what they do, and good managers put workers in a psychological position to individually find ways to feel good about their work.

The research findings were echoed in documentary filmmakers Tim Nackashi and David Sampliner's "Dirty Work," which was named best documentary feature at the 2004 Atlanta Film Festival and was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. The film follows a septic tank pumper who views himself as an anthropologist of sorts, a bull semen collector who takes pride in being a staunch ally of the family farmer and an embalmer who is a self-styled "restorative artist."

The study by Ashforth and his colleagues cites the examples of an exterminator who elevates his profession by developing an expertise in identifying various types of pests and insects, and that of a manure spreader who speaks of his autonomy and enjoyment of being outdoors. Such occupational recalibration is an essential survival tactic. "Reframing infuses the work with positive value and/or negates its negative value," the researchers state.

For example, a manager of animal control officers is quoted as follows: "I tell all of them you have to find something you really, really like about this job, something that makes you feel good inside, whether it would be placing a dog with some little kid or making some family happy that they found this perfect pet. Because there's a lot of bad aspects to this job."

A collection agent's manager makes this statement: "A lot of people don't realize that collectors are there to help the customers, not to hassle them or harass them, which is a word I hear a lot. Once the customer finally realized that, 'Hey, we're here to help you get out of your financial difficulty,' their perception changed significantly from bad guy to 'Wow, you guys really are helpful. Thank you.' "

"Although society may fairly or unfairly brand certain occupations as physically, socially, or morally tainted," the study by Ashforth and his colleagues concludes, "the managers of such occupations articulated an impressive array of techniques for normalizing the taint. It is through normalizing that occupational members are able to derive pride and identification from jobs that society necessitates but then sanctimoniously disavows."

So-called dirty workers and their managers face a constant struggle for validation as they provide essential services everyone depends on.The researchers discovered four types of practices that normalize taint:

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