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How to Recognize and Avoid the Toxic Glamour of Glossy Work

A new study explores how people cope with complex and conflicting perceptions of their job, and what HR managers can do to keep good people in a difficult role

“Glossy work” is a new term in the human resource management lexicon.

But the concept is likely to feel uncomfortably familiar to legions of modern workers whose dream job falls far short of the hype.

That’s the crux of “glossy work” — a term coined by Lisa Cohen, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University, and Sandy Spataro, a professor of management at Northern Kentucky University, in a new study exploring workers’ self-image, and how people cope with complex and conflicting perceptions of their employment.

On the one hand, glossy work comes with high-status affiliations that many people see as attractive. On the other, the tasks associated with the job are mundane, with little intrinsic value. Worse, many industry insiders hold these jobs, and the job holders, in low esteem.

Think fact checker at a chic magazine, production assistant on a Hollywood movie set, or project manager at a sexy startup.

“There’s this gloss that comes with the work, and people in the rest of the world will look at these jobs and say, ‘That’s really glamorous,’” says Cohen. “But the reality isn’t quite that glossy. It’s kind of dull. It’s dreary. It’s repetitive.
But the reality isn’t quite that glossy. It’s kind of dull. It’s dreary. It’s repetitive.

And, without proper management, it’s also toxic.

“You can imagine people who do glossy work are constantly talking themselves in and out of doing the job, or even staying with an organization,” says Cohen.

Mixed messages

The study evolved from Cohen’s research into institutionalized organizational dissent. Using the example of magazine fact-checkers, her initial work focused on workers whose role it is to be professional devil’s advocates.

To gather data for this latest study, Cohen and Spataro took advantage of an unconventional methodology: an industry insider — a former fact checker — conducted interviews with fact checkers employed at high-end magazines; the aim was to better understand how they managed the conflict that is, by necessity, built into their job. The interviewer played the role of confidant, enabling a fuller range of the responses by the interviewees.

But the resulting data also revealed unexpected trends that eventually led them to define glossy work.

Everyone, to a degree, shapes a story around their work in an effort to make themselves feel better and to look better in the eyes of others.

But the study found that fact checkers employed a far more nuanced model of role representation, shifting the narrative with surprising ease depending on their audience’s knowledge of the realities of the job and on the nature of the checker’s relationship to the audience.

With industry outsiders — who could easily see the glossy aspects of the job but not the details beneath — fact checkers consistently enhanced their job, often mixing its glossy elements into their description. Whether they chose to reveal the realities of their job title, and all it implies, seemed to rest on their level of investment in the audience’s opinion of them.

Conversely, among insiders such as the confidant (a former fact checker) and magazine writers, fact checkers didn’t try to cover up the negative realities of the job. But their presentations to these two audiences differed considerably.

With the confidant, checkers seemed almost blasé about the realities of the job, presenting them in a matter-of-fact, open, easy manner. They sought neither pity nor empathy from the confidant — an audience with whom they expected no future interaction; instead, they seemed to just report the facts.

With writers, however, checkers appeared to want to be perceived as professional and constructive. They worked hard to combat any negative or low-status associations with the job through careful interactions aimed at shifting away from the role-based image of a fact checker toward a more interpersonal connection.

For the person at the centre of this complex model, the result is often stress, anxiety, and a frustrating feeling of not being understood.

“It’s a lot of mental energy to figure out who you talk to about what and how much you reveal in each situation,” says Cohen.

“Everyone eventually burns out.”

Dividing their truth

For Cohen, the data reveals important lessons for hiring managers.

Managing the fallout of glossy work starts with identifying where it exists within an organization and being willing to give potential recruits a clear picture of exactly what they are getting into.

“When people have a realistic job preview and then take the job, they’re far more likely to stay in the job, more likely to be satisfied, and more likely to actually do well,” she says.

Of course, you don’t want to scare good people away, but you don’t want them to come expecting something that they’re not going to get either.

Rather, she says, “It’s important to strike a balance — ‘Here is the job. There are some really wonderful aspects to it and you are going to be working for this wonderful institution. But there are also some pieces that are going to be a bit more challenging.’”

Cohen notes elements of glossy work can be found in almost any organization and suggests an analysis of HR trends may help reveal the jobs that more firmly fall into this category, along with the kinds of people and personality traits that may be best suited for a particular role.

“We are in the age of big data and organizations have information about the kinds of people they hire, their characteristics, how they perform, and how long they stay,” she says. “Figure out who has been successful in the job in the past, however you may define success — maybe it’s someone who stays in the job for two years, someone who makes very few mistakes, or someone who goes on to do something else in the company.

“Companies like Google are well known for analyzing data and understanding what leads to success, and I think there may be a bigger call for doing that sort of research,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest take-away, however, is in learning to better interpret how people really feel about the work they do. In doing so, managers can help those employed to do glossy work feel better about themselves, while being understood for what it is they actually do.

“Realizing that people have this tension is going to help you understand the truth in what it is they’re saying,” says Cohen. “In our research, I don’t think in any case people were trying to be deceptive. I think they’re just dividing their truth.”

Lisa Cohen
Lisa Cohen
Associate Professor, Organizational Behaviour