Dirty Work in Organizations: Negative Consequences and How to Reduce Them

Topic(s): burnout, engagement, leadership, organizational commitment
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2018
Article: Changing Experiences of Work Dirtiness, Occupational Disidentification, and Employee Withdrawal
Authors: J.M. Schaubroeck, L.W. Lam, J.Y.M. Lai, A.C. Lennard, A.C. Peng, K.W. Chan
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

Many jobs involve at least some level of what researchers call “dirty work,” which describes any component of the job that is considered degrading. This ranges from physical elements of the job, such as disgusting or unsafe conditions, to uncomfortable social situations, to morally questionable tasks like deception. When employees experience more dirty work than they are used to, negative outcomes for the organization can result.


Researchers (Schaubroeck et al., 2018) examined what happens after employees do more intense or more frequent dirty work than normal. Employees reported more disidentification with the organization, even one week after conducting the dirty work. This means that in order to maintain a positive view of themselves when they are doing “negative” dirty work, employees distance their personal identity from the organizational identity they hold. In other words, they lessen the idea that their self worth is connected to their organizational membership. The researchers found that this was especially true for individuals who perceived their occupation to be more stigmatized overall.

Organizations should be concerned with disidentification because it leads to several destructive outcomes. The researchers examined how organizational disidentification related to withdrawal behaviors, such as doing personal activities (e.g., web browsing or taking long breaks) as well as employee intentions to change jobs in the following week. The more organizational disidentification employees experienced, the more withdrawal behaviors and job change intentions they reported. To summarize the research findings, dirty work threatens a positive self-view, so individuals disidentify from the organization. Organizational identification then connects to more withdrawal behaviors and intentions to change jobs.


This may seem like bad news for the many occupations that involve at least some level of dirty work. However, the researchers also found a potential way to help repair the negative effects of dirty work – team-focused leadership. This type of leadership encourages employees to focus less on how the work tasks lead to personal gains, and instead focus on how they contribute to achieving goals shared by the group. Collective goals and collaboration foster more positive ideas about one’s occupational role. Indeed, the researchers found that the relationship between dirty work and organizational disidentification was not detected for employees who reported leader behaviors promoting cooperation and attention toward group goals.


It is important that organizations and leaders understand the long-term implications of dirty work, as it can lead to withdrawal behaviors from employees and intentions to change jobs. Therefore, the researchers suggested that leaders attempt to reduce the intensity and frequency that employees have to deal with dirty work. Additionally, leaders can make an effort to compensate employees in ways that reduce the chance of dirty work triggering a sense of detachment from the organization.

One specific way of decreasing organizational disidentification that the researchers considered was through team-focused leadership. The results indicated that leaders should enact behaviors that foster collaboration among employees and communal outcomes to foster unity and reduce the potential employee disconnection. Combining this recommendation with previous suggestions, the researchers noted the advantage of specifically speaking about how a degrading task relates to a broader group or organizational purpose. This strategy can prevent employees from deliberating about their individual dignity and instead allow them to feel more connected to the organization. Each of these efforts may decrease the negative organizational outcomes of dirty work.


Schaubroeck, J. M., Lam, L. W., Lai, J. Y., Lennard, A. C., Peng, A. C., & Chan, K. W. (2018). Changing experiences of work dirtiness, occupational disidentification, and employee withdrawal. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(10), 1086.

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