Business Psychology

Article No. 339
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Dirty Work and Turnover

Recent finding offers a new strategy for a difficult problem.

Every time the senior class of a high school goes through graduation, these young people sit through commencement speakers who portray a heroic role for them in the adult world they're about to enter. It's a motivational speech, intended to drive their enthusiasm and focus their energies. They're going to build a better world, end hunger, and bring world peace. The world is waiting for them. The world needs them. They're just in time. No goal is too lofty. No objective is out of reach.

Such stirring rhetoric for a brief afternoon ceremony would be easy to dismiss if it were isolated. It's not. The practice of stirring the motivation and inflating the expectations of students is common, and nearly everyone with something to say to our young people does it, teachers, coaches, ministers, and musical heart throbs come immediately to mind. Young people are special, they say, and there's something important for them to do. Unfortunately, when they come to us looking for a job, these expectations interfere with the jobs we offer them, and when our new-hires finally do understand what we want them to do, it can come as quite a shock:

"Put on your muckers and go down to the basement, into that pool of raw sewage, find the cleanout, and open it. We'll feed the snake down the sewer line and clear the blockage. Then, you can clean up the mess."

You can sense the change in mood as you arrive at a work site and give this instruction to a newly-hired young employee, and it's easy to imagine his thinking as he heads down the stairs and goes to work. It also comes as no surprise when he doesn't show up for work the next day, or the next, or the next.

Sewer work is dirty work, and turnover is a problem in this business. We do our best to hire agreeable people who seem to have an aptitude for the work, and then one day they're gone, and we're right back where we started, short handed. Fortunately, dirty work and turnover was the subject of a recent study conducted by Erika C. Lopina from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and she learned some things we can use.

Cleaning out blocked sewers isn't the only dirty work that needs to be done. There are dozens of other occupations that involve bad odors, dirty conditions, or distasteful tasks, for example, garbage collector, undertaker, and slaughterhouse worker. Professor Lopina studied animal shelter employees with euthanasia responsibilities. Finding people to euthanize unwanted dogs and cats and stay with the job is a problem with this occupation, too.

Professor Lopina selected eight animal shelters from different geographical regions of the U.S. For a two-year period, she surveyed every newly hired employee who would have euthanasia responsibilities. One hundred and two people completed her measures on their first day of employment. Twenty-nine voluntarily left their jobs during their first two months. After two years of collecting data, Professor Lopina went to work to find out what was different about the ones who stayed.

Three factors emerged from her analysis. The first factor involved self-destructive ways of coping with stress such as denial, self-blame, giving up, and medicating oneself with alcohol or drugs. The people who left their jobs were much more likely to employ these coping strategies when under stress. The people who stayed chose more constructive strategies like humor, reframing the meaning of actions, and seeking support from others.

The second factor involved the experience people had preparing themselves for their new jobs. The more involvement they had with people actually doing the job, the more likely they would be to stick with it. Information was also important. The more information they had about the job, the more likely they were to stay on the job.

The final factor came as quite a surprise. Usually, we look for people with positive outlooks, cheerful people who are fun to be with. The people who stuck with jobs in the animal shelters tended to be the opposite. They were negative. They reported higher levels of distress, nervousness, fear, and being upset in general.

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of the kind of people to look for and the kind of preparation they need to take a dirty job and stick with it. They are people who expect unpleasant days and can deal with it, even though they may not like it. It's what they expect. They are people who know what they're getting into, and have witnessed others like them who are doing the job and dealing with it. If these others can do it, so can they. They have a thick skin and can find humor in unpleasant experiences. They experience fulfillment in spite of what others may say or think. They can clean up an overflowing sewer, find something funny in the task, and feel good about the appreciative comments customers make. Not many people can do this work. They can.

Reference: Lopina, Erika C., Steven G. Rogelberg, and Brittany Howell (2011) Turnover in dirty work occupations: A focus on pre-entry individual characteristics. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, published online: 11 JUL 2011 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8325.2011.02037.x

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