What do you do for work?

How many conversations start with the simple question: What do you do for work?  You meet someone new and it’s an almost automatic response, a reflex.

It seems harmless enough but after reading a post by Scott Dinsmore I think we need to think not only about the value in asking that simple question but how we answer that question ourselves when asked.

As Scott puts it, opening a conversation with a new person by asking what they do for work says that you care more about their title and position than you do about them as a person.  It also says that you may not really be invested in this conversation and could not be bothered to think of something better to say.  Is that really what you are saying?  Scott offers an alternative approach, but I will let you read more about that.

What I want to talk about is how we, as public servants, answer the question about what we do for work.  Who were the last three new people you met and talked about your work with.  Now that you have them in your mind, consider these questions:

  • Do you think you made a good impression?
  • Do you think they understood what you do?
  • Did you leave them feeling positive that you were working to make our community better?
  • Did your passion and enthusiasm about your work shine through your conversation?
  • Did you show an interest in them?

It is so important that we as individual public servants are able to answer those questions, more often than not, with a YES.  It can seem daunting but everyone we meet is our customer or client. Remember, we are also “our” customers and clients. We consume public services, so how did the last public servant you met rate against these questions?

We work to make our community a better place. It is why we have a public service. I believe this should be the fundamental motivation at the core of every public servant. But to achieve this objective, we need our customers and clients, the public, to trust us.  How can you trust someone to make your community a better place if when you meet them, you are left thinking that they had no interest in you or your interests or they didn’t show any passion or enthusiasm for their work.  Simple, you can’t.

Here are some things to think about when you are answer the question about what you do for work:

  • Your job title is difficult for other public servants to understand, never mind anyone else in the community.  Humanise your job.  Find a way to explain what you do that actually means something to people.
  • What do you really enjoy about your job? Share it.  Of course you can’t share confidential information, but you can talk about your job in general terms.
  • People get frustrated with the public service, particularly when, from their perspective, they are not getting a good service.  You don’t have to agree with them.  You don’t have to trash talk the public service to be liked.  How we talk about each other and ourselves matters.  Instead, think empathy not sympathy.

So the challenge to you (and to me), as a public servant, is to find a way to share with the people you meet your passion and enthusiasm for the work you do.  Engage with them, take an interest and understand their perspective.  I am confident that a public service that takes an interest in and engages with the public it serves can’t help but create a positive impression and earn trust.

regards, Jason
A public servant since 28 June 1999.

One comment

  1. Alister Trier says:


    I reckon the litmus test is being able to describe your job (and what you did today) to your kids. Sometimes harder than you think. I like the post, cheers

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