On High-Status Work and Low-Status Work

Why Your Company’s Sink Is Full of Dirty Dishes

Illustration by Joan LeMay

It’s a regular Wednesday morning at TechCo. The mood is cordial but focused, with fingers clacking away at keyboards and animated conversations taking place in glass-walled conference rooms. You finish up your morning coffee and make your way towards the office kitchen.

On the wall just above the sink is a large hand-written note that reads “PLEASE DO YOUR OWN DISHES,” followed by a passive-aggressive smiley face. It is written in “fun” colors to appear friendly and non-threatening. And underneath it sits a pile of food-caked plates and half-full mugs.

“It’s funny,” you think to yourself, “this company can deliver complex, scalable solutions to difficult technology problems, but nobody here can figure out how to do the dishes!” You chuckle a bit, and delicately place your dirty coffee mug atop the ever-growing pile.

The Dangers of Low-Status Work

A sink full of dirty dishes may seem like an inconsequential problem, but it is often symptomatic of a larger and more insidious one: the unacknowledged divide between high-status and low-status work. In an organization that does not understand and manage this distinction, people who take on low-status tasks are implicitly understood to be less powerful, less important, and less valuable to the organization. After all, wouldn’t an important and valuable person have better things to do than wash a bunch of dishes?

The stigma of low-status work extends far beyond doing dishes. Product managers may jockey for high-status “strategic” work, and play hot potato with lower-status tasks like project management and customer service. Growing startups may hire ambitious young generalists for entry-level roles, only for those ambitious young generalists to immediately shun the specific work for which they were hired and seek out higher-status tasks. In some cases, I’ve seen low-status tasks “infect” work once perceived as higher-status— if the person responsible for handling client communications is the same person who cleans up the room after a meeting, how high-status can client communications really be?

The way these issues are manifest can vary from organization to organization, but the net effects are remarkably similar. As employees compete for high-status work, personal ambition is placed at odds with team goals. Those who prove the most unyielding and merciless in the pursuit of high-status work are often rewarded with praise, promotions and visibility. And those who step up to do low-status work for the good of the team are “rewarded” with more low-status work and fewer opportunities to lead. Resentment builds, morale suffers, and leadership is left wondering why they seem to have such a hard time recruiting and retaining “team players.”

Understanding High-Status and Low-Status Work in Your Organization

The problem here is not that a distinction between high-status work and low-status work exists, but rather that so many organizations do not take the necessary steps to understand and manage it. Are the tasks considered “high-status” by your team actually impactful? Are people seeking out high-status work because they feel uniquely qualified to do that work, or because the work itself feels like a prize or a reward? Are “low-status” tasks receiving the attention they deserve? And how much attention do they deserve, anyhow?

Answering these questions is not easy, and requires having some frank and uncomfortable conversations. At most companies, everybody instinctively knows what work is high-status and what work is low-status. And yet, any outward acknowledgement of this distinction seems somehow gauche, classist, against the supposedly egalitarian principles of the modern “flat” organization. One-on-one meetings are often a great time to initiate these conversations, and to get a better picture of how the distinction between high-status work and low-status work is implicitly understood by your team at large. Here is one exercise I’ve run in one-on-one meetings to help people understand and navigate high-status and low-status work for themselves and their organizations:

  1. Write out a list of everything you do on a given day.
  2. Map it out on a two-by-two grid of high-impact vs. low-impact, and high-status vs. low-status.
A quick exercise to map the relative status and impact of day-to-day tasks

This exercise is both a good means of gathering information and a clear way to signal that high-status work and high-impact work are not always the same thing. Sometimes, this exercise reveals that some kind of critically important work (often something adjacent to customer service and support) is considered extremely low-status. Other times, it reveals that some kind of extremely high-status work (often technical in nature) is not having nearly the impact it should. Usually, it reveals some combination both.

Here’s a more informal diagnostic I’ve used to get a quick feel for how an organization approaches high-status and low-status work: offer to pick up coffee for somebody in a leadership position. Do they offer to pay for it, or do they assume that you will pay for it? Do they express gratitude, or do they imply that you are too important for that task and offer to have somebody else do it for you? When you see them next, do they assume that you are always going to be the person who brings them coffee?

Managing High-Status and Low-Status Work

Acknowledging and understanding the distinction between high-status and low-status work is an important first step — but once this distinction has been brought into the light, it is critical that leaders take decisive actions to manage how high-status and low-status work is understood and delegated. Here are some concrete steps individuals and organizations can take to achieve a more transparent and harmonious balance:

Distribute low-status, low-impact work more equitably

When low-status and low-impact work (such as doing the dishes) is not managed carefully, even the most trivial-seeming tasks can take on outsized significance as markers of status. Try randomly and specifically assigning a different employee to do any unwashed dishes on different days of the week, and see how quickly this dynamic changes (and how quickly “do your own dishes” changes from a passive-aggressive suggestion to a strictly enforced rule).

Acknowledge the impact of low-status, high-impact work — not just the work itself

Rather than simply acknowledging low-status work for its own sake — which can come off as dismissive and condescending — acknowledge the impact it had on an overall project. For example, rather than saying “… and thanks to our office manager for bringing us tasty treats,” you could say “our office manager provided critical support that enabled us to ship this feature on-time.”

Enforce a culture of respect

Too often, I’ve seen employees who do high-status work (such as engineers or sales executives) treat employees who do low-status work badly. This should not be acceptable. If you see an engineer rolling their eyes at a sales person who is struggling to meet a client need, have a conversation with them about it. If you see an executive treat a community manager like their personal concierge, have a conversation with them about it. If you see somebody leave a dirty dish in the sink, have a conversation with them about it.

Avoid further devaluing low-status work by framing it as “paying your dues” on the way to high-status work

Finally, avoid dangling “high-status work” as a proverbial carrot for people tasked with doing high-impact, low-status work. This further reinforces the idea that the work they are currently doing is not important or valuable. If you are hiring somebody specifically to do work that your organization considers low-status, hire somebody who is passionate and knowledgeable about that work. Acknowledge their expertise early and often, and work with your team to make sure that they do the same.

Please feel free to respond here with your thoughts and comments, and to reach out to me directly at matt@suddencompass.com if you have any questions specific to your organization.