by Dale Tweedie
One influential idea, especially in economics, is that we mainly put up with the pain work causes in exchange for wages. On this view, a key task of management is to ensure that workers don’t avoid or ‘shirk’ their tasks.
An opposing view is that working is itself a human ‘good’. For example, in work we might express our abilities or be connected with others. If this is right, management is not necessary to good work in the same way. Indeed, management might sometimes get in the way.
Our research explores which view was most plausible in cleaning work. Cleaners are an important test case because economists would anticipate that they have compelling reasons to ‘shirk’. Their work is arduous and absolutely necessary. Yet in a peculiar paradox, cleaning is lowly paid and socially stigmatized. Barbara Ehrenreich once described cleaners as ‘the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society’.
However, not only did the cleaners we studied not ‘shirk’, they broke management rules that prevented them from doing a good quality job. This commitment to working well under unlikely conditions suggests that influential views about why people work, and about what management does, can be misleading.