Originally created 08/15/98

Workers shrug off stigma associated with 'dirty jobs'



SAN DIEGO -- It's a dirty job, but Fred Dean figures he might as well be the one to do it.

Dean's job is scraping dead animals off San Diego's streets.

"It gives me peace of mind. I'm making an honest dollar, and putting food on the table and a roof over my head. And I know my job's not going anywhere," he says. "There's always going to be a need for somebody like me."

In fact, people like Dean -- garbage collectors, hospital orderlies, bail bondsmen, strippers and others who work in jobs most folks find either physically, socially or morally tainted -- aren't particularly bothered by the stigma, according to researcher Blake Ashford, who presented a study titled "How Can You Do It? Dirty Work and the Dilemma of Identity" at the Academy of Management's annual meeting this week in San Diego.

At the conference of scholars who primarily study Fortune 500 corporations and their managers, Ashford and a few colleagues devoted a session to stigmatized jobs and the attitudes of those who perform them.

"They find merit in their work and take pride in doing a good job or providing a service, and to heck with everyone else," says Ashford, who conducted his study with Glen Kreiner, a fellow business professor at Arizona State University.

Dean, for example, can tell you there is a right way and a wrong way to scraping up roadkill dogs, cats, possums and skunks and putting them into the back of a pickup.

"You have to be careful when handling a black and white. That's what we call skunks," Dean says. "As long as you don't break that pouch, you're OK. If you do, you can smell the truck coming miles away."

The dead-animal removal officer says his job "may not be pretty, but it beats being on a street corner begging for money or putting a gun to somebody's head at a bank."

Kreiner quotes a gravedigger who was asked how he liked his job as saying: "If you stop and think, a funeral is one of the natural things in the world. I enjoy it very much, especially in the summer."

Kreiner says those who work in stigmatized professions often form an "us vs. them" mentality. A prison guard who is uncomfortable about answering the question "What do you do?" may instead socialize with fellow guards.

Workers with dirty jobs also tend to marry people in the same line of work or pass the profession down to their children, Ashford says.

Kelly Smith, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, says 60 percent of the organization's 20,000-member funeral homes are family operations, many of them second- and third-generation businesses.

"The things the public view as the most negative about the job, they view as the least," Smith says. "The most rewarding aspect is helping people deal with the loss of a family member. They don't think of it as working with dead bodies."