Suppose you hire one of the world's leading heart surgeons only to employ them with bookkeeping or billing at your hospital. You may even be paying a wage that is commensurate with what other heart surgeons make--and he or she probably hired on thinking that heart surgery was what they'd be doing. But you stick them in billing.

I once heard a term for this from a friend in the US Army (I've lost contact and anyway I can't remember exactly whom) where he told me this was common practice. You take a commissioned office who has decades of training and lots of subject matter expertise in some way that might actually, say, help the army if they were smart about it--but they will stick them in charge of filing reports for some outpost or station. Forever.

I'm looking for a short phrase or a single word rather than the using a paragraph or two to explain this concept. For example the army guy said something like: "They had him doing _." (i.e. _ = "a task or job that was far below his training and capabilities and that essentially anybody could do with minimal training (say under two years) and that is a shame".)

Any thoughts?

EDIT: To be clear I want to say that this happens not ONLY to military folks, or people who are near retirement but also to mid-career people who are civilians.

  • Are you looking for a past-particple? I've been _________ed by the Army. They've assigned me to a post far beneath my skills and experience, and it looks as though I'm going to spend the rest of my days here. – TRomano Oct 9 '15 at 12:39
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    What's wrong with 'wasted'? – JHCL Oct 10 '15 at 13:21
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    "Suppose you hire one of the world's leading heart surgeons only to employ them with bookkeeping or billing at your hospital." Well, that would be astonishingly stupid, not only because you lose the skills of the surgeon, but because hospital billing is a difficult, complex process the surgeon would almost certainly be completely unqualified to perform. – T.J. Crowder Oct 11 '15 at 12:39
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    My job; every day. – Ian W Oct 12 '15 at 8:04
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    @T.J.Crowder OK so imagine he is put in an ENTRY LEVEL position in billing. Suppose he is given the job of sorting the mail or something. Did not mean to imply that billing is an easy thing. My sister actually works in Hospital billing. Sorry. – amcalde Oct 13 '15 at 13:55

19 Answers 19


Busywork is a general term for this, but doesn't quite capture the disparity between his abilities and assignment. Link-MW

The military has many colorful, pithy expressions for this sort of thing. "Counting dolphins", "piloting a desk", "interrogating the snow", etc.

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    Those are great. I thought by colorful, you meant something else. Although I'm sure there are plenty of those too. Do you know of any that are recognized outside of the military? – amcalde Oct 9 '15 at 12:36
  • A more general expression that just occurred to me is that someone was "sent to count trees in Siberia", but that dates to the cold war and is definitely more punitive in nature. – Eric Hauenstein Oct 9 '15 at 12:38
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    Maybe the best way to put this would be in a military context: "My friend in the air force would say they have me piloting a desk" or something to cast the reader/listener's mind into the idiom. – amcalde Oct 9 '15 at 12:42
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    The expression I've heard for this is "grunt work" as in" hard, menial labor; tedious work. (Work that a lesser person ought to be doing.) " From McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions – Michael J. Oct 9 '15 at 20:35

I agree with @Linl-MW. You could also say he is overqualified for his work. Or that he is stuck at a backwater station.

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    Might want explain the idea of a backwater station. – Huey Oct 10 '15 at 5:07
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    Who is @Linl-MW? The user who posted the answer is called Eric Hauenstein, or are you referring to the dictionary, Merriam-Webster? – Mari-Lou A Oct 10 '15 at 7:21

If someone is put out to pasture, he is forced give up some responsibilities.

Example: Have any of you ever seen a manager put out to pasture in a company? In such a state of uselessness, he creates makework for himself and others, and becomes a very petty person to work with.


In some professions, to be given a desk job or turned into a paper pusher indicates that the person has been removed from their area of interest and expertise and assigned to a relatively mindless task, and they are no longer "out in the field" and being productive.

I used to run a pharmacology lab, but they've made me a paper pusher.

  • Good, for people who start away from a desk! For a highly skilled computer programmer this can still happen. – amcalde Oct 9 '15 at 12:45
  • Yes, paper pusher would be better than desk job for those who start out sitting (or standing) at a desk, doing something productive.. – TRomano Oct 9 '15 at 12:46

It's not colorful, but you could say the heart surgeon is underutilized.


Consider "they had him doing all the menial work"

menial: lowly and sometimes degrading: menial work (Random House)

  • I like NOAD's definition as a complement to RH's: not requiring much skill and lacking prestige. "Degrading" can be part of the equation, but not necessarily so. – J.R. Oct 9 '15 at 13:28

Getting stuck doing the menial tasks is often described as "doing the gruntwork", or - in the UK - the donkeywork.


You could say the surgeon in the question was relegated to bookkeeping or billing. From Dictionary.com:


verb (used with object), relegated, relegating.

  1. to send or consign to an inferior position, place, or condition: He has been relegated to a post at the fringes of the diplomatic service.

You might even say the surgeon was relegated to scut work.

From Merriam-Webster:

scut work

noun \ˈskət-\

: routine and often menial labor

The term scut work is sometimes applied to tasks that someone is required to spend their working hours doing even though he or she is overqualified for them. The term apparently originates from the medical profession; see What is the meaning and etymology of 'scut' from 'scut work'?

It is also used outside of that profession nowadays, however. (In fact I was unaware of the medical origins until I looked it up; I had become familiar with it in non-medical settings.)

Scut work is not always used in a pejorative sense, but if you say someone was relegated to scut work then this implies that the assignment was not a usual one for someone of that person's qualifications.

  • My favourite is to be consigned. – Bookeater Oct 10 '15 at 16:22

The crude, politically-incorrect term for this that I heard in the military was bitch work. If a highly qualified person (as opposed to a very junior person) is doing bitch work, it suggests that they are either being punished for something, or their superiors have taken a personal dislike to them.

If they're physically sent somewhere else, such as to a remote base, you might say they were sent to BFE or stuck in BFE. BFE stands for Bumfuck, Egypt, a fictional town in the middle of nowhere, where it is assumed that nothing important ever happens.


You may be looking for downgrade:

  • to reassign to a lower level or status.

(The Free Dictionary)


"Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut"

It's more general than specifically using someone with way more skills or experience than is necessary, but it conveys the overall theme about employing way more resources than is necessary to do the job.

  • But it always gets the job done.. – jmoreno Oct 12 '15 at 7:18

It might not convey exactly what you mean, but I think you're swatting flies with a sledgehammer.

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    But that never works... – jmoreno Oct 12 '15 at 7:18

"treading water" might be the phrase that a military person used. But it doesn't mean that a person was forced into that position. It just means that someone happens to be in the position of doing just enough work to justify being paid, but not making any real progress. The phrase is neutral on whether it is through their own choosing or because of being forced into it.


This doesn't perfectly fit your example, because the job the surgeon is being asked to do is completely different than their expertise, but one possibility would be overkill.

From M-W:

an excess of something (as a quantity or an action) beyond what is required or suitable for a particular purpose Yes, we need a new car, but this huge truck seems like overkill.

This would make more sense if the surgeon was asked to do an entry level task in his profession, rather than doing something in a completely different discipline.

For example, if you hire a special forces operative to act as security at a school play, that's overkill. Asking a world-class brain surgeon to administer a tetanus shot would be overkill.


If the work that the over-qualified person is doing isn't just busy work or menial work (i.e. you need to have some skills), then I would describe the work as being beneath the over-qualified person.

See feel it beneath (one) (to do something).


In some cases, the person has been promoted. Either in order to get rid of him/her (then it's promoted away), or up to a level where the work the person has knowledge in is no longer needed (e.g. a software developer promoted to non-technical management).


If one were telling a story, and had set up the assignee character as a known talented quantity, then several of the answers could work. As I read the question, though, the problem is to use one word or phrase that tells us that the assignee is underutilized and, that the assigner(s) display some level of hostility, or ignorance and/or incompetence.

I don't think grunt work, or scut work, indicate any punitive or demeaning nature to the assignment. They are simply descriptive of hard, physical labor, or of repetitive low-level tasks. They would only have value if the assignee was already assumed to be highly educated/talented. "Assigned to a backwater" is better, but still does not indicate that the assignee is capable of more. "Put out to pasture" can be a positive move, and is thus contextual to the parties involved (in other words, it needs more description to set up the case). But, those could all work. But it would mean the assignee is assumed to be capable of more at the time the phrase is used. Meaning they need more description - and thus don't quite work.

I like "bitch work". It definitely imparts a punitive, adversarial put-down of the assignee. Someone (the person assigning the "bitch" status) is very definitely indicating a superior power in the given situation. And it indicates that the "bitch" is only doing the work because the assigner has power over them. But it does not quite impart that the "bitch" is capable of more.

Something is tickling my memory about this, and I cannot bring it into focus. "Underutilized" is quite accurate, but lacks the color I think is being requested. I sure wish I could remember what is tickling my memory! I do think there is a phrase which fits this bill!

  • I think you get the idea. Let me know if you think of the phrase. – amcalde Oct 13 '15 at 13:52

I believe the polite answer to the question in the form of: "They had him doing _." is "administrivia"; the combination of administration and trivia (or trivial).

From thefreedictionary, "The mundane details involved in running an organization or executing a process".

There are more colorful terms as mentioned above, but this has a certain flare in that is sounds big and important and must clearly matter to someone, but now one can figure why they have to do it.


Similar to user85627's sledgehammer, but my favorite is Lighting a cigarette with a blowtorch.

Also, as a fan of Chorus Line, I like to use the phrase, "Stop kicking so high, Cassie". But you have to be familiar with the play to get that (Cassie is a former Broadway soloist who can't get work and is auditioning for the chorus line).

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