Maybe Bob's not very good at doing his job. Perhaps he always shows up late, misbehaves, or just isn't reliable when it comes to getting things done. Or maybe his superiors just hate him. Whatever the reason, Bob gets punished by getting stuck with the nasty, boring, and utterly thankless tasks.
Common examples of the sorts of tasks used for a Punishment Detail include:
Something related to sanitation and toilet functions, or anything else that involves unpleasant odors and getting extremely dirty.
Boring, repetitive tasks, like manually copying the exact same letter hundreds of times.
Something extremely demeaning, like assigning a highly-trained professional to menial tasks normally left to unskilled workers.
The task itself is completely pointless make-work, like digging a bunch of holes and then filling them back up again.
The job is in a dangerous or otherwise extremely undesirable environment such as preforming traffic direction in a busy intersection.
What unifies the concept is the idea that just having to perform the task is a form of punishment.
Frequently Truth in Television.
A common subversion is to have the person being punished actually wind up enjoying the work, and maybe even doing the job well enough to earn some amount of respect from their superiors.
If nobody has been misbehaving lately, a lot of these duties will end up falling on the New Meat instead, or will just be rotated around the group so everyone is equally miserable.
Peeling Potatoes is a subtrope about a specific type of Punishment Detail. Closely related to Reassigned to Antarctica, which is about being moved to an undesirable location as a form of punishment. If the unpleasant task comes along with a promotion, the character might have been Kicked Upstairs.
See also Writing Lines.
open/close all folders
In just about any work put into an office setting, being put in charge of getting everyone else coffee or other refreshments can be used as this, especially when it's being framed as a deliberate snub/form of exclusion.
Boss: We have important things to discuss. While we're doing that, you can go get everyone some coffee, Bob.
In the Naruto fanfic Cutting Loose a fairly common means of dealing with most levels of misbehavior among the ninja corps is to assign those ninjas the nastiest, most unpleasant jobs possible, like sewer-cleaning.
In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic Address Unknown, pegasus mailponies see mail delivery on the ground as the ultimate humiliation, an announcement that they've screwed up badly in the air. It works out in Derpy's favour, though, as it allows her to prove she really is good at her job.
In The Last Castle, Irwin is ordered by the Warden to move a massive pile of rocks from one end of the prison yard to the other. When that doesn't break his will, Irwin is subsequently told to move all the rocks back to their original position.
In Police Academy 2 Mahoney and his partner are assigned to the inside of the Lincoln Tunnel (or some other traffic tunnel), ostensibly in case there are any civilians who need help but actually as punishment, being forced to breathe the traffic fumes and such.
Will Stockdale in No Time For Sergeants is assigned to latrine detail, but he takes to the job and gets them ship-shape.
In the Codex Alera series Tavi gets assigned with measuring and evaluating all the latrines after calling his immediate superior out selling for selling the legion's supplies on the black market.
Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire gets put in charge of managing the sewers in King's Landing, since he's horribly unpopular. In something of a subversion, Tyrion goes on to make the sewers incredibly more efficient than they used to be.
Ciaphas Cain is fond of handing these out instead of harsher punishments (to reenforce the illusion of a The Men First attitude), particularly to soldiers who've watched his back (or at least he likes to give them the impression he does to encourage them).
In Lords and Ladies Soon-To-Be-Queen Magrat makes two attempts at threatening Shawn Ogg with punishment detail. The first time she threatens to have him clean the privies, and he responds with a blank "But I do clean the privies". The second time she goes for a more general "all the dirty jobs", and when he comes up with much the same answer adds "I shall see to it there are dirtier ones".
In Lady Knight, Kel assigns people to latrine duty when they cause trouble. The rest of the time, unpleasant tasks are divided equally among the camp's inhabitants (including its commander), except for those who have a talent that makes them more useful elsewhere. Kel even threatens to list a particularly unpleasant specimen of humanity as having a talent for cleaning latrines if he doesn't shape up.
Live Action TV
In the first episode of Young Blades, the Musketeers get assigned to dungeon cleaning duty as punishment for fighting.
In Red Dwarf, the punishment of choice was repainting the ship's hull. Bear in mind that you have to wear a spacesuit, and a safety tether, and said hull is 6 miles long.
In the first episode of Reaper, Sam's boss decides to punish him the for the damaging the store by assigning him to the Gardening Department (where he has to pile forty pound sacks of dirt all day). Fortunately, the Devil arranges it so that his love interest is there to keep him company.
On Community, the study group are forced to wash down the school's newly acquired space simulator as punishment for creating — and permanently voting into use — an offensive school flag.
Common Law has the main characters offered their choice of these when they violate the terms of the prior inquiry. Either they can go their return to their separate and far less prestigious positions, or they can stick together and end up on pawn shop duty. They Take a Third Option.
''JAG: In "Boot", Meg Austin, while undercover as a Marine private, is assigned sanitary duty.
A very common practice in many military organizations. Expect to see the people in question doing various menial labor such as painting parking space stripes, doing yardwork, etc. Sometimes they will also be used for "make-work" jobs with no real purpose, such as painting rocks.
However, in some cases these tasks will go to the New Meat instead of people on Punishment Detail.
KP, or Kitchen Patrol, is a common form of military punishment in media (classically taking the form of Peeling Potatoes). In Real Life, it's not nearly as common as it once was.
More often than not, the punishment is not the detail itself. The detail, while miserable, is usually something that has to be done. The frequency that one ends up on said details is the punishment. If you find yourself burning shit once a week, that's normal. If you find yourself burning shit twice a day, that's a pretty good indication that you've pissed off someone up top.
A possible form of a sentence of "Community Service."
Clean-up duties are often used in this fashion just about everywhere.
Having to work dorm guard duty or some similar job that is typically on a rotating watch (the main purpose being to keep unauthorized people, usually members of the opposite gender, out of the dorms). Someone has to do this at night, and someone has to do this on the weekends. One's daytime duties do not necessarily decrease just because you had guard duty from midnight to Two AM.
Guard Duty may be punishing but is not punishment in and of itself. Having to pull guard duty every night including weekends especially when there are other ablebodied personnel available? That's punishment.