Dirty Work and Emotional Labor in Public Service: Why Government Employers Should Adopt an Ethic of Care

AuthorSharon H. Mastracci
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2022, Vol. 42(3) 537 –552
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X21997548
Dirty Work and Emotional
Labor in Public Service: Why
Government Employers
Should Adopt an Ethic of Care
Sharon H. Mastracci1
This article combines theories on emotional labor in public service and dirty work
to argue that organizations should adopt an ethic of care to support their workers.
The economics of public services undermine the consumer-sovereignty narrative
in government, particularly where public servants are agents of social control and
enforcement. Public servants cannot and should not behave according to a customer-
service ethos in many important areas of public service. Emotional labor is the
process by which workers manage the identity-damaging aspects of public service.
This article critiques individual-level human resource management (HRM) approaches
and recommends dismantling customer service expectations that are inappropriately
applied in public-service contexts.
emotional labor, dirty work, workplace environment/culture, job stress,
The view that workplaces are sites of interesting emotional dynamics worth studying
is fairly recent: Organizations “as emotional arenas in which different emotions are
generated, displayed, shed, and traded did not emerge seriously until the 1980s”
(Gabriel, 1998, p. 293). Emotional labor research emerged and developed during this
period, while research on dirty work is a little older. Although “dirty” is subjective,
1University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sharon H. Mastracci, University of Utah, 260 South Central Campus Drive, Room 358, Salt Lake City,
UT 84112, USA.
Email: sharon.mastracci@poli-sci.utah.edu
997548ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X21997548Review of Public Personnel AdministrationMastracci
538 Review of Public Personnel Administration 42(3)
stable categories of stigma exist and include physical, social, and moral dirty work.
This article argues that public service includes more than its share of dirty jobs, given
its role as a Harbor of Refuge and provider of last resort. Firefighting is physically
dirty and dangerous work, law enforcement officers work with stigmatized popula-
tions, and public defenders and politicians may resort to ethically-questionable con-
duct. Workers in dirty jobs employ several techniques to sustain a positive self-image;
techniques I argue require emotional labor. Emotional labor is the process by which
dirty workers manage the stigma of their jobs.
This article contributes to the literature on emotional labor by placing it in conver-
sation with the literature on dirty work, and contributes to the literature on public
personnel administration by situating public service squarely in the dirty work litera-
ture. I consider whether government work obligates public-sector organizations to
adopt an ethic of care to mitigate the negative effects of dirty work. I conclude that the
nature of government services indeed compels employers to manage their organiza-
tions according to an ethic of care, or particularism, rather than an ethic of justice, or
universalism. I argue that reforming government to run like businesses is inappropri-
ate to the delivery of public goods and services, given the oftentimes-involuntary
nature of transactions from the citizen’s perspective.
Dirty Work and the Public Service
Because government is the service provider of last or, in some cases, only resort—con-
sider public safety, courts, and children’s services—public servants often work with
socially- and morally-stigmatized people. To the extent that people are stigmatized or
reluctant partners in citizen/state encounters and that they have few options, these
public servants are engaged in dirty work. If individuals seeking services could obtain
what they needed in the market, they would not place themselves in subordinate posi-
tions to the state. In the United States, good examples are legal services and housing:
Private counsel differs qualitatively from a public defender, as does market-rate hous-
ing from public housing. While excellent public defenders and public housing exist,
individuals with the means to acquire legal services and housing from the private sec-
tor enjoy a better range of choices than those who cannot. Government as provider of
last or only resort often means that the citizen/state encounter involves high stakes:
From securing the safety of a child in foster care to securing the nuclear arsenal.
The high stakes of government services place public servants in an antagonistic
position according to the definition of dirty work. Knowing this and recognizing that
public servants work on society’s behalf, an ethic of care, defined as treating public
servants particularistically rather than taking a universal approach, obligates gov-
ernment organizations to address the adverse impact of certain government work.
Under an ethic of care, workers are treated like individuals deserving of attention as
ends unto themselves, not just a means to a separate economic end. This is the appro-
priate approach to public service workers who identify deeply with their roles and
want to make a difference. In the next section, I review the literature on emotional
labor and dirty work. In the third section, I discuss the role of emotional labor in

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