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Johan Sandström, Professor of business economics at Luleå University of Technology. Photo: Melina Granberg

Work become a dirty secret

Published: 2 July 2015

Most agree that it is important with well being at work. But what happens when the company that you work for create problems outside of work?

Johan Sandström, professor in business administration at Luleå University of Technology, does research on organizational issues related to ethics and social responsibility. Following Bofors work with ethics for eight years awakened a new idea. He wanted to explore how people with regular jobs but who work for companies or organizations that are considered dirty, manage their work identity off work. The professor has not found any prior research in the field. He believes that this is a type of worker who has never been in focus.

– It involves major industries that employ many people and generate much revenue, says Johan Sandström.

Can relax at work

Weapon, pornography, gambling, tobacco, alcohol and nuclear are industries which are stigmatized by parts of society (considered as more or less dirty). Companies in these industries are at the same time quite ordinary organizations. They need controllers, purchasers and marketers – employees who become linked to the dirt.

To find out how employees in stigmatized companies handle their work identity, Johan Sandström conducted interviews with employees at companies within arms and pornography industries. The research shows that people generally feel comfortable at work but that problems begin when they leave work – on the bus, at the nursery, at dinners and parties and in the immediate circle of family and friends.

As soon as they tell about where they work the dirt spills over. The persons become directly associated with the physical, social and moral dirt and must often defend themselves. Various strategies are therefore developed to avoid the truth ("I work for an export company") and distance themselves from the activity ("I'm just keeping the books and have nothing to do with the products").

A group that lacks support

This makes many of them feel uncomfortable in their private life and in extension perhaps even at work. Johan Sandström believes that employers could give employees training in dealing with the problems that arise in privacy.

– Just because you learn to talk about it, it does not mean porn or arms become ethical. But companies could for example expose employees to scenarios. What do you say when your neighbour asks you what you are working with? It provides the opportunity to test arguments, find what feels best and learn from each other. This approach occurs in ordinary industries where temporary stigmatization occur, for example SJ.


Johan Sandström

Johan Sandström, Professor

Phone: +46 (0)920 493113
Organisation: Accounting and Control, Business Administration and Industrial Engineering, Department of Business Administration, Technology and Social Sciences