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How ‘glossy work’ can disrupt your workforce

March 23, 2021
By Lisa Cohen and Sandra Spataro

Every job, no matter how exciting it seems on the surface, has some mundane aspect. (LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe Stock)

“Because you’re affiliated with the magazine, people think you’re a strange type of royalty, no matter how you’re affiliated.”

“You’re almost embarrassed to say you’re a fact checker to people in the industry cause immediately they shut you off… and you just say, ‘That’s not what I am. That’s what I do. That’s what I do to pay the rent.’”

These quotes, from two people working as fact-checkers for glossy high-status magazines, illustrate a conflict that many people experience around the work they do every day.

They must balance a discrepancy between the superficial glamourous image of the job and the reality that lies beneath.

Many people hold jobs that have a patina of glamour and high status because of the organizations and industries they are in. However, in some cases, the work they regularly do is far more mundane.

This is the phenomenon of “glossy work” and it’s an easy trap to fall victim to.

When the work doesn’t meet expectations

Almost any job connected to cultural products has elements of glossy work.

People romanticize working in museums, movies and television, music — and these days even in cuisine.

But glossy work is not only limited cultural industries. These days, it may seem glamourous to work in artificial intelligence, as a data scientist, or for a cutting-edge startup.

Yet, there is no guarantee that having jobs connected with any of these industries will result in days replete with fulfilling work.

Of course, artificial intelligence holds the potential to eliminate all of our boring tasks but the reality, for now at least, is that many tedious and time-consuming tasks like data entry still require a human to steer the ship. Data scientists do not spend entire days writing code for exciting machine learning processes.

Every job, no matter how exciting it seems on the surface, has some mundane aspect.

A slippery slope of cognitive dissonance

That begs the question: Why do so many people still flock to these traps?

We found one explanation in a study of magazine fact checkers, and it has to do with how people represent their work to others.

They distribute the truth across different audiences. People have dueling needs to present their best selves, while still being understood as they really are. Ultimately, this plays out in what they reveal about their jobs.

We found that when they are talking to people whom they believe know something of the truth about the job, they will freely speak about it, warts and all.

However, when they are sharing with outsiders — say acquaintances at a cocktail party — focus rapidly shifts to the glossy side of it.

They emphasize they work for a high-status magazine, in journalism, or with famous writers.

They decidedly omit the part where they spend hours slogging through transcripts or fixing careless errors made by writers who often resent them.

How to avoid it

For jobseekers, a few things can be done to avoid stepping into the glossy work trap.

Chief among those tools is developing strong job screening practices. Learn to ask good questions in informational and job interviews. Ask people about what they do every single day so that they move beyond the good stuff.

Connect with people who have the job you are interested in across organizations. Understand what is most important to you in a job: Do you care more about the tasks you do every day or the organization or industry that you work for?

It’s not that one is better than the other; it’s that you want to make a conscious and informed choice.

Recruiter best practices

For employers, there are clear ways to avoid creating these traps.

One is to make sure you offer a realistic job preview. With many industries having experienced major disruptions in their workforces amid the pandemic, hiring managers may be under intense pressure to fill vacant positions.

That pressure can sometimes make it especially tempting to focus on what is great about a job to prospective hires. This is a disservice to all candidates.

Managers risk hiring individuals who are quickly disillusioned and choose to leave, which further feeds the cycle.

Another option is to examine the structure of jobs and careers in your organizations.

Are you isolating all the boring tasks into a handful of jobs? Are you building pathways out of your more mundane jobs?

As more new candidates are hired and onboarded virtually post-COVID-19, the spectre of glossy work and its implications for human resource professionals will become more crucial to grasp than ever.

By understanding how it manifests, and what one can do to prevent it from taking root, employers can optimize talent retention and strive toward setting their employees up for success while ensuring they remain happy with the work they do.

Lisa Cohen is an associate professor of organizational behaviour and the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. She has been a faculty member at London Business School, the Yale School of Management and the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine, where she taught in the areas of strategic human resources, organizational behaviour and communications.


Sandra Spataro is a professor of management at Northern Kentucky University and the Director of the MBA and MBLI programs. Her research examines status and influence processes in organizations, demographic diversity, and organizational cultures.



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