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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18 Responses

  1. I agree 100 percent. Anything you do at an internship–matters, and however you react to what you are doing–matters even more. Internships requiring smiling a lot when you are unhappy, taking no with a grain of salt, and doing whatever you can to maintain a professional level even when it feels like certain things aren’t professional tasks. Even producers sit at their desk all day waiting to answer phone calls on important shoots. Even editors sit and have to handle “simple” scheduling tasks. It’s all in good practice and it’s all part of moving up the ladder.

  2. Great post! I was told early on in my career by a very powerful woman that in order to be successful, you have to be the one who says, “I’ll do it.” more than anyone else. From coffee to paperwork to copying, if the big wigs see that you’ll always raise your hand to help out and pitch in, you’ll get the reputation of a team player and eventually the big projects will start coming.

    1. @Marcy- spot on! I love the “I’ll do it” attitude. That’s one way you can make yourself needed. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great entry, Lindsey. You’re right, there are too many young people out there who believe they are entitled to leadership roles right out of school. Although I can’t say I’d be fine with being someone’s coffee gopher (I’d rather work for a smaller company than do bagel runs, but that’s my own preference), there’s plenty of IT-related grunt work in my field that I’ve seen new hires snub their noses at, and actually do a sub-par job. Behavior like that can and has resulted in managers no longer trusting those people to do a good job, which leads to poor year-end reviews. And that’ll get you nowhere, fast.

    Great blog. I’m a new follower, and am looking forward to doing a little archive browsing. 🙂

    1. @Fallon- I’m so glad that you found my blog and website- welcome! I agree that trust is very important in the workplace. Employers will not empower employees if there is a lack of trust. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. As painful as this may be for many to read, you make some great points. All the work we do along our career journeys adds up to who we become as an employee. If we can’t have good worth ethic in the little things, how will we ever be expected to accomplish the big things with integrity and passion? Plus, the more enthusiasm you put in the little things, the more likely you’ll move into the position you’re really interested in more quickly.

  5. I’m not one of those older folks who likes to gripe about Gen Y. In fact, I’m in that ignored group that came just before them. But, more often than not, I find myself amazed at their optimism and their hope in the future. having said, what I’m about to write is going to sound old-man-ish: my first job was so grungy I can’t even describe it without making someone lose their lunch. I worked at a rest home tending the residents’ “needs.” The job was so utterly disgusting that I’m confident that no job I ever do will be that nasty or difficult. It’s empowering.

    Our blog did a great article about first, and often unglamorous, jobs out fresh out of college. I think it’s a great follow-up to this article: http://www.yellowbrickroad.com/follow/post-grad-confession-what-is-a-real-job/

  6. I think this doesn’t sound like real grunt work. Real grunt work is not finding an internship and getting hired to tighten bolts and cut metal on a barn project. That’s what I’m doing this summer. I guess it’s all about perspective.

    1. @regdoug- I wonder if you would feel the same way had you landed what you thought was the perfect internship. Having a positive outlook and strong work ethic can only help you evolve as a professional. Hard work looks great on a resume as it shows character and commitment. Start now to look for your internship for next summer and good luck!

  7. I agree that a lot of people right out of school feel entitled to a lot, or feel they deserve something. One of the hardest things for me was to realize that I really didn’t deserve anything. That may be hard to swallow for some, but other people my age have this idea that “doing all the right things guarantees success.” It doesn’t.

    Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and get the work done you need to. I think the solution here is to remember that A. You are working towards something you like or B. This serves a short-term purpose. If it doesn’t, I think it’s time to move on and find a new job —

    1. @Alexander Heyne- Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! It sounds like you’ve got the right attitude.

  8. Hi…Your book, Getting from College to Career” indicates that your website (by the same name) has a free basic assessment. I am not able to find it on that site and would appreciate any direction you may have. Thank you!

    1. @Penny Andrews- Of course! From the homepage of my website, on the right hand column, under New & Noteworthy, there is a box that says “Take a Free Career Assessment Test.” Good luck!

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