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Dirty Work for their Children? Managers Say That's Just Fine

March 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,,

It is a story as American as apple pie: parents labor at harsh or menial jobs so that their children can have better lives. Upward mobility is the moral of the story, or so it is generally assumed.

Now a series of interviews with managers in fields widely viewed as "dirty" suggests otherwise.

The research, appearing in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, finds that, to a surprising extent, such managers have no qualms about recommending their occupations to their children. More than twice as many said they would recommend them as said they would not.

In addition, 60% said that, when asked on social occasions what they did for a living, they answered straightforwardly, while only 37% said that they were vague, and only one person said he lied.

Further, the respondents' managerial status seemed to have little to do with the fact they were so comfortable with their jobs. In the course of extended interviews, they "seldom mentioned...distancing themselves from subordinates, or blaming subordinates for the [job's] taint," write the study's authors, Blake E. Ashforth of Arizona State University, Glen E. Kreiner of the University of Cincinnati, Mark A. Clark of American University, and Mel Fugate of Southern Methodist University.

"In short," the authors add, "being a manager did not seem to lessen our respondents' felt stigma and was seldom invoked as a shield against stigma," in large part because "they have typically done -- or are still doing -- the tainted work themselves."

The study is the latest in a body of research seeking to understand how individuals who have jobs that are "physically, socially or morally tainted...maintain a positive identity in the face of pervasive stigma." The authors note that, while the public does not necessarily look down on dirty work and may even view it as noble or heroic, people "tend to remain psychologically distanced from the work, glad that others are doing it...despite perhaps feeling somewhat indebted to the noble-but-dirty worker."

The researchers conducted one-hour interviews with 54 managers, three from each of 18 occupations that meet the definition of dirty, either because of the physical demands of the job; because of its servile nature or the contact it requires with socially undesirable people; or because it is morally or ethically tainted. Half the jobs had high prestige and half had low prestige, as indicated by occupational rankings from the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.

The physically dirty jobs were animal-control officer, exterminator, and roofer (low prestige) and emergency-room nurse, firefighter, and mortician (high prestige).

The socially tainted occupations were chauffeur, correctional officer, and welfare aide (low prestige) and internal-affairs police officer, social-service counselor, and surveillance/probation officer (high prestige).

The morally tainted jobs were collection agent, exotic entertainer, and used-car salesperson (low prestige) and abortion-clinic medical staffer, animal researcher, and personal-injury lawyer (high prestige).

The interviews sought to uncover the challenges confronted by these managers in normalizing their work and the tactics they employed in doing so. They consisted of open-ended questions and were semi-structured, so that interviewers were free to pursue interesting leads and were not required to ask all questions.

The researchers also carried out a survey of 350 MBA students to validate that the 18 occupations under study were, in fact, widely viewed as dirty work and as physically, socially, and morally tainted. Half those surveyed had at least seven years of full-time work experience.

Findings included the following:

-- Asked if they would recommend their occupations to their children, 23 respondents said yes and only 10 said no. Prof. Ashforth adds that not only did 14 of 17 respondents with high-prestige jobs answer affirmatively, but 9 of 16 of those with low-prestige jobs did so too.

-- Twenty-one of 35 respondents (60%) said they would speak openly about their occupation if a stranger at a party asked, with the 69% among high-prestige workers, Prof. Ashforth notes, somewhat exceeding the 53% among the low-prestige contingent.

-- The survey of MBA students revealed that outsiders are more inclined to consider work to be tainted when it is morally questionable than when it is physically dirty or socially undesirable -- 87% for the first compared to 65% for the second and third.

The study documented four general tactics, both proactive and defensive, that managers in all three categories of dirty work employed to normalize their occupations: 1) accentuating the positive value of their work and its nonstigmatizing aspects; 2) associating with others who are in the same boat; 3) confronting others' perceptions of taint and disarming them through humor, counter-stereotypical behavior, and quiet resistance; and 4) defending their psychological well-being through such means as gallows humor, acceptance of one's limits, comparing oneself to others who are worse off, and even distancing oneself from one's own job role.

In sum, the authors conclude, "Although society may fairly or unfairly brand certain occupations as physically, socially, or morally tainted, 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."

The study, entitled "Normalizing Dirty Work: Managerial Tactics for Countering Occupational Taint," is in the Feb/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal,  This peer-reviewed publication, now in its 50th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 16,000 members in 92 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
United Press International. Study: Most in "Dirty Work" Tell Truth. (Monday, March 19, 2007).

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