Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 292
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Normalize Dirty Work

New research describes how managers help employees feel good about stigmatized jobs.

The time is 5:50 A.M. The setting is a meeting room near the entrance of a maximum security prison. The room is crowded with correctional officers, case workers, and sergeants, and they�re all ready to go to work. One person is standing at a podium at the front of the room, and when everyone is quiet, he begins calling the roll. This person is the shift lieutenant, and he�s in charge, but as he looks over the assembled group, he sees trouble. Some of the faces are already screwed up with anger and fatigue. They haven�t even started yet, and they�re ready to explode. These sullen ones worry the lieutenant. There�s always a few, every day, and when the inmates get out of hand, when they explode in anger and take a swing at someone, too often, much too often, it is one of these sullen ones that they are swinging on.

�What is going on, and how can I help?� These questions follow the lieutenant throughout the day, and he�s not alone. Such questions dog managers in a wide variety of settings, possibly most settings, and the problem has come to the attention of researchers. Blake Ashforth, from Arizona State University, is prominent in this investigation.

What is going on? In a word, disappointment. We tell our kids to study hard in school, and we promise that they can be anything they want. Some of them believe us, but few kids dream of being correctional officers when they grow up, and that�s the way it is for many jobs. For a myriad of reasons, many occupations are not highly esteemed, and some are regarded as dirty work. In his latest research, Ashforth identified 18 occupations that fell into this category, and then he interviewed 54 managers who worked in these fields. His questions sought to learn how these managers help their employees deal with the disappointment and stress of working in a stigmatized occupation. Ashforth�s goal was to discover all the ways managers can help.

People need to feel normal and to have others validate them as O.K. Since much self-identity derives from the job a person holds, when a person holds a job that is not highly esteemed and may even be considered dirty work, he is blocked from receiving needed validation of his normalcy from his community. Ashforth discovered that through sensegiving comments and actions, supervisors employ a variety of techniques that provide this normalizing function.

Ashforth discovered that much sensegiving is used unconsciously, and that�s a problem. If managers had a greater awareness of how they use sensegiving to mitigate the taint of dirty work, then they could use these tactics more deliberately and effectively. To help make conscious what is now unconscious, here are the most widely used techniques Ashforth discussed.

The first group of tactics neutralize the stigma by concealing it. One example is adjusting one�s job title: clerks become �sales associates,� janitors become �custodians.� Another tactic is dissembling. A nurse describes the abortion clinic where she works as a �women�s health center.� Another tactic is gallows or black humor. Only insiders can see the humor in such jokes, but their effect is to help those who must do the dirty work be more accepting of it, to help them adapt to it, and change their perception of it. Another tactic is social comparisons, for example, with other occupations. �You get to work inside and not be out in the cold during winter or the heat during summer.� Another comparison can be made with one�s past. �You make more now than you did at the burger barn.� Another tactic involves attacking those who keep the stigma alive. �Oh sure, they look down on us, but when termites are destroying their house, suddenly, exterminators are O.K. people.� �Oh, we�re just sales clerks until they really don�t know what to buy to solve their problem. Then they depend upon us.�

A second group of tactics shifts the focus of employees from the stigma to the intrinsic value of the work, essentially ignoring the stigma. Ashforth called it reframing. With reframing, distasteful work is infused with new meaning that ennobles it and makes it worthy of admiration. For example, a personal injury lawyer may speak of manufacturers disregarding the safety of their customers, but through civil suit, the manufacturers have been forced to design much safer products. An animal control officer may speak of stopping the spread of rabies and protecting children. Managers may also point out non-stigmatized aspects of the work. For example, used car salesmen may be reminded that they only work six-hour days.

Finally, Ashforth describes the creation of social buffers in stigmatized occupations. These are larger groups that can be relied upon to provide a validation of normalcy for workers in stigmatized occupations. Meetings of mortician associations provide it for embalmers. Employee activity associations provide it in many large organizations.

That�s the best of it. Ashforth has given us new ways to help people cope with the stigma of dirty work and feel O.K. about it. If this describes any of your people, they will benefit from your efforts.

Resource: Ashforth, Blake, Glen Kreiner, Mark Clark, and Mel Fugate (2007) Normalizing Dirty Work: Managerial Tactics for Countering Occupational Taint. Academy of Management Journal, 50(1), 149-174.

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