Why “Grunt Work” Matters

I’ve become increasingly distressed over the years by the number of students and recent grads who complain to me that their jobs or internships contain too much “grunt work.” (Interestingly, these complaints have not slowed at all in the bad economy, when one might think any job, including one that requires some gruntage, is better than none.)

First, let’s define this yucky phrase. According to a (possibly dubious?) entry on Wikipedia, the phrase “grunt work” originates from the military and refers to the job of stringing a “grunt” pole between two trees and digging a trench along one side so soldiers can use it as an outdoor toilet.

Eeuw. If that’s the grunt work you’re being asked to do during your summer internship, I agree that you should totally complain.

However, in my experience what people describe as “grunt work” usually entails things like answering phones, running out to Starbucks, filing documents, collating presentations, distributing mail and, as was a major daily task in my first college internship, visiting up to three cafes a day to find the exact flavor of fat-free muffin my boss wanted for breakfast that day. (Yes, that was back in the old days when people ate carbs.)

If these are the kinds of tasks you’re being asked to do, my advice is to accomplish them with the same energy and work ethic you apply to any other task you’re given. Since I sense that some of you might be rolling your eyes at this advice (especially those of you who have just graduated from college where you held multiple leadership positions), here are my reasons why completing menial tasks well is sometimes more important than shining on big projects.

  • Happily accomplishing “menial” tasks helps you defy the stereotype that Generation Y workers are lazy or entitled. Even the most hard-working Millennials can get lumped together by employers who have experienced some of your not-so-hard-working peers. And since this is a hot topic in the media as well, some employers already have a bias against young workers and are looking for ways you might be demonstrating entitlement. If you do all of your assigned work with the same enthusiasm, you can make this bias disappear.
  • Every single thing you do at work contributes to your professional reputation. Beyond generational characterizations, remember that you personally are building a professional brand. This includes how you interact with colleagues, how you communicate online, how well you complete difficult projects and — yes — how you handle the day-to-day grunt work of your job. Time and time again I’ve heard managers complain about (and decide not to hire or promote) young professionals who are great at challenging, exciting tasks but drop the ball on work they feel is beneath them. Strive to be described as someone who completes all tasks with a positive attitude and excellent work ethic. Those are the people who move up quickly.
  • All tasks have a larger purpose. No matter how boring or repetitive a task you are assigned might be, do your best to find the ultimate purpose in the work. For instance, if you are collating and proofreading dozens of PowerPoint presentations, I believe it’s okay to ask your supervisor what the presentations are being used for. If the answer is, “We are pitching a multi-million dollar campaign to a potential new advertiser,” suddenly your task becomes absolutely crucial. (And there’s no harm in asking if you can read through the pages you’re collating and perhaps learn more about the potential client or even sit in as an observer during the pitch meeting.)

What’s the purpose of getting everyone’s Starbucks order perfect? Networking! When you drop off each person’s double-half-caf-soy-latte, use it as an opportunity to have a quick chat, ask a question or simply make a good impression. The more face time you have with your colleagues, especially senior people, the better.

  • Grunting now will make you a better boss later. The more you know about how to do any task in your organization or line of business, the better. For instance, if you know it always took you about an hour to proofread a certain number of articles, you’ll be able to assess the skills of the person doing that now. If you found a great system for filing manuscripts, you’ll be able to teach it to the person who has that task after you. Many of the best managers say that they would never assign a task they haven’t done themselves — be that kind of manager.

How do you feel about “grunt work”? Do you still despise it even after my attempt to characterize it in a better light? Please share your thoughts!



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hi, i'm lindsey!

Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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