I've come across this phrase in the following context:

... such cultures bring up people to be box-tickers.

  • 1
    Consider a menu, where you have a little box beside each item. You place a tick (or check) in the boxes corresponding to the items you want to have. That's called "ticking boxes" in the literal sense. A box-ticker is then someone who simply selects from existing choices instead of coming up with something original.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 8, 2016 at 11:19
  • 1
    "Ticking" in this sense is primarily a UK usage, so if qwaz is American we can understand his bafflement.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 8, 2016 at 13:31
  • Quote from the book "Bullshit Jobs" by David Graeber: I am using the term “box tickers” to refer to employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.
    – alexgiorev
    Dec 8, 2019 at 21:49

9 Answers 9


I think the expression "box ticker" is used to refer to a small narrow minded person, one that does a very simple job that does not imply responsibilities especially in bureaucratic contexts:

The following article from the FT appear to use that expression with the meaning I am referring to:

Box-tickers should not be the ones making decisions

  • he arguments that reasons should be given for all decisions, that consultation should be undertaken, that people should be accountable, are superficially compelling. But the big bureaucracies, public and private, whose processes fulfil these requirements are not known for the quality of their decisions but for their ineptitude. Typically the reasons given for judgment are rationalisations after the event, the consultation is a formality rather than a sincere search for opinions, and the accountability is a matter of extensive paperwork rather than a genuine appraisal of performance.

    • But the real downside of box-ticking is not that it is hypocritical, although it often is. It is that the people who find it endurable are often people who should not be making decisions at all.
  • 1
    Even though it can be deduced from your example, I don't think you've made it entirely clear that calling someone a "box-ticker" implies that they don't think for themselves and instead just follow the rules and regs; regardless of whether they actually make sense in the specific context where they're being applied.
    – Dom
    Aug 8, 2016 at 18:32
  • @Dom - what is that you don't understand?
    – user66974
    Aug 8, 2016 at 20:55
  • 3
    Compare pencil pusher. Aug 8, 2016 at 21:15
  • 1
    I understand it, and I can pick out the part that I'm referring to about not thinking for themselves, but non-native english speakers et al. may not be able to find the important part, and thus may not really understand the definition. Also, it's not necessarily true that the box-ticker does "a very simple job that does not imply responsibilities", it's more that they don't care nor think about the specific situation they're box-ticking for. Box-tickers are particularly aggravating when dealing with situations where there is no defined procedure as they don't bother to look for a solution.
    – Dom
    Aug 9, 2016 at 14:43

According to Collins, box-ticking means

the process of satisfying bureaucratic administrative requirements rather than assessing the actual merit of something.

So a box ticker should be a person who looks for bureaucratic administrative requirements rather than actual merit of something; i.e. he will routinely go through his instructions while assessing something, rather than actually putting his mind to it.

  • I saw that description on the web, but I don't understand what that actually means.
    – qwaz
    Aug 8, 2016 at 11:16

Consider a menu where you have a little box beside each item, such as the following:

enter image description here

You place a tick (or check) in the boxes corresponding to the items you select. That's called "ticking boxes" in the literal sense. As the person doing the ticking, there's no need to think about what each item should be called.

A box-ticker is then a derogatory term for someone who simply selects from existing choices instead of coming up with something original. They stereotypically follow protocol blindly instead of taking appropriate initiative.

  • This does really explain the deeper meaning of the word and appears to just take it at face value. Of course someone who ticks boxes is a "box-ticker" but it doesn't mean anyone would call them that just for filling in a form. By the same token, they could just as appropriately be called a "form-filler", but it doesn't mean anything beyond filling out a form. "Box-ticker" has a specific, pejorative meaning which you haven't mentioned here.
    – Dom
    Aug 8, 2016 at 18:36
  • @Dom The pejorative sense is that they don't think for themselves - that's been addressed in my answer.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 9, 2016 at 4:42
  • I agree with Dom. The pejorative meaning is related to the checking of items on a checklist, where every box needs to be checked. That's not "selecting from existing choices", as this answer suggests.
    – MSalters
    Aug 9, 2016 at 13:41
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    I can see how you've mentioned it, "there's no need to think.." but the need is not the point of the word, the point is that "box-tickers" don't care about the situation they're assessing, they simply work their way down a list. For example, suppose you go to a kebab shop and you want something that isn't on the menu but they do produce it; a box-ticker would probably say "it's not on the menu, I can't do it" whereas a non-box-ticker would do it because they're able to think for themselves and deduce that doing so would be positive for the business by making an additional sale.
    – Dom
    Aug 9, 2016 at 14:37
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    That last sentence is a pretty perfect. +1
    – Dom
    Aug 9, 2016 at 15:09

Imagine a checklist, like the checklist a pilot fills out. Those usually have a lot of boxes that have to be "ticked".

The process of doing this is very mundane and monotone. It is always done in the same way. You don't need to put your mind to it, you just take he list, start at the top and tick the boxes, one after one, without much thinking.

No go back to Collins:

(derogatory) the process of satisfying bureaucratic administrative requirements rather than assessing the actual merit of something

A box ticker is someone who mechanically only does the minimum to fulfill requirements, and nothing more. He doesn't come up with own ideas and doesn't take the initiative. He also doesn#t question wether what he does is productive or wether procedure is dated and should be changed.

  • In my understanding, this is correct and gets to the heart of it more than other answers. A "box-ticker" is simply someone who is satisfied "as long as all the boxes are ticked", without thinking of things in a larger context.
    – hobbs
    Aug 9, 2016 at 4:49
  • For example this article (Australian), which complains about the "procurement standards of government — which always goes for the cheapest as long as the boxes are ticked."
    – hobbs
    Aug 9, 2016 at 4:53

People who "check the box" (fulfill a requirement) without analyzing if it is good or bad, beneficial or not. Who fulfill the requirement without ever questioning the worth of the action.


I think Josh61's answer is the most common meaning, so I upvoted it. But there's another meaning, and you haven't provided enough context to tell which it is.

Many companies practice what is known in the US as affirmative action. Many people resent this. I've heard the term "box-ticker" used to refer to people who are presumed to have been hired not for their abilities, but so the employer could "check a box" on some theorized affirmative action quota. E.g., "Hired a black person... check." Needless to say, this usage is derogatory and offensive.

An unsurprisingly incoherent example of this usage:

Affirmative Action ---devalues--- PoC in the workplace, noone knows if they are "box-tickers" or there to do the job everyone else is doing . . .

  • Thats not what box-ticker means...
    – Polygnome
    Aug 8, 2016 at 21:35
  • @Polygnome If it's used in that way, that's what it means. Aug 8, 2016 at 21:36
  • If I use Banana to describe an Apple it doesn't mean it the correct usage of the word.
    – Polygnome
    Aug 8, 2016 at 21:39
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    If it's broadly used in that way, that's what it means, but a single quotation in a non-reference work does not show common usage.
    – MSalters
    Aug 9, 2016 at 13:43
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    While I think it is rare for an individual to be singled out as a box-ticker in this manner - more usual for an authority or a policy to be described as box-ticking - this usage is correct (although morally questionable). From the Daily Mail web site, British comedian Sarah Millican in discussing her TV show said: 'The BBC never came to me and said, “You’re Northern, you’re common, you’re female – you tick lots of boxes.” It’s offensive to be accused of being a box ticker.'
    – Mr_Thyroid
    Aug 9, 2016 at 19:08

The negative connotations relating to affirmative action, as described by @KevinKrumwiede, do not necessarily apply - it could just mean someone who has all the required qualities for a job...

"Alex, I've read your CV and you're a real box-ticker".

On the daily mail web site football manager Martin O'Neill is described as a box-ticker for Sunderland (but he was later sacked less than half way through a three year contract).


If a workplace wanted to fulfil as many equal opportunities requirements as possible, they would appoint someone who might be considered a "box-ticker", ie someone who fulfilled as many of the following traits as possible: non-white, non-male, gay, transgender, non-christian, disabled, etc.

This term is considered derogatory by some as it obviously implies someone has gotten a job based on factors other than their ability to do the job, but in some cases it is unarguably accurate.

  • Hi and welcome to ELU Stack Exchange. This answer could be improved by adding some cited references justifying your definition, as well as some quotations where the term is used with such a meaning. Jan 14, 2017 at 4:45

A box ticker is also a co-worker clearly not up to the job to the extent the decision to recruit them can only have been made because that person ticks one or more of the boxes in the employer's diversity programme.

  • Welcome to SE EL&U. Please take the time to read the tour and how to answer questions. At SE we're looking for answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed. And keep politics out of it. Your example regarding diversity programmes is inappropriate here.
    – David
    Sep 13, 2017 at 12:11

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