You’re Probably a Rank and File Employee — Find Out What That Means



AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Ever heard the term "rank and file" and wondered what it means? Let's dive in — here's everything you need to know.

What does "rank and file" mean?

Rank and file refers to the non-executive and non-managerial employees of a company.

So if you're wondering, "what is rank and file employees," then these are the people who work for the company, rather than those who run the company.

"Rank-and-file employees, or rank-and-file staff, are the backbone of most companies," according to Work Chron. "With no fancy titles on their business cards — if they even have business cards — nor the word 'manager' in their job descriptions, they're still valuable workers the company cannot do without. In fact, a company that lost its rank-and-file employees would be out of business faster than you can say 'bankrupt.'"

Rank and file employees benefit from good performance, though they do not have complete control over what they can do for the company. But while rank and file employees do not have so much decision-making power, for companies to keep them motivated is incredibly important as they are indeed the front line of organizations.
"Calling a job or employee rank-and-file does not mean the individual has no skills," according to Small Business. "There may very well be critical skills required for the job. In a factory, for example, most of the employees on the factory floor would be considered rank-and-file. Yet, each possesses a vital skill that must be learned and precisely performed."

What is the origin of the phrase "rank and file?" 

Reportedly, the term rank and file originates from the formations of military personnel. That's because troops would stand next to each other (rank) and in a line (file) while they were marching, while officers, on the other hand, would march on the outside of that formation.

"In business usage, then, rank-and-file employees have their marching orders," according to Small Business. "They perform their jobs alongside one another on equal footing, with managers directing the rank-and-file from outside the group, watching them work, offering encouragement and criticizing when necessary."

The usage of rank and file is said to date back to the 16th century. In fact, chess pieces are also even often described as ranks and files, as the game is often likened to warfare.

Today, you may hear the term used with regard to unions.

"You'll often hear the term 'rank-and-file' from union organizers and read it in the union's documents," according to Small Business. "These unions were originally formed to give rights to and protect the rights of rank-and-file workers. It was the lower-level workers who were abused or taken advantage of by the managers, owners and executives. Such unions called their organizations 'rank-and-file unions' to differentiate them from craft unions comprised only of skilled craftsmen. Rank-and-file unions were formed to include all non-management workers in an industry, declaring all members to be on equal footing with an equal vote on all issues. Perhaps most importantly, the name indicated that they were also controlled by the rank-and-file members themselves, not by a managerial hierarchy resembling their workplaces."

What are some examples of rank and file employees?

Here are five examples of rank and file employees.

1. Bank Teller

A bank teller would be considered a rank-and-file employee, compared to the branch manager, who is a management employee. A bank teller is an employee of a bank who deals directly with the customers, so he or she is a critical moving part.

2. Cashier

A cashier or clerk would be considered a rank-and-file employee, compared to the department manager, who is a management employee. A cashier greets customers, handles monetary transactions, takes and delivers orders, assists with food/product preparation and, sometimes, has to solve customer complaints. Without them, the business couldn't operate. 

3. Assembly Line Worker

An assembly line worker would be considered a rank-and-file employee, compared to the production manager, who is a management employee. An assembly line worker is responsible for operating and maintaining equipment, usually specific equipment, in a factory or warehouse in order to prepare products for distribution. They usually have to assemble and check product parts, ensure that all machinery runs smoothly and, sometimes, assist in the shipment of items. They're critical to the business.

4. Cleaning Staff Member

Someone on the cleaning staff of a hotel, for example, would be considered a rank-and-file employee, compared to the front desk manager, who is a management employee. A cleaning staff member is responsible for keeping the space clean and up to health standards. Without them, a business can be penalized for not meeting requirements — and it can hugely turn off guests.

5. Host/Hostess

A host or hostess would be considered a rank-and-file employee, compared to the restaurant manager, who is a management employee. A host or hostess is responsible for greeting guests, usually at a restaurant. They are usually in charge of seating charts, seating guests and, sometimes, taking orders, as well as dealing with customer complaints. They, too, are critical to businesses, especially in the food and bar business.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist for a gamut of both online and print publications, as well as an adventure aficionado and travel blogger at She covers all things women's empowerment — from navigating the workplace to navigating the world. She writes about everything from gender issues in the workforce to gender issues all across the globe.

Do you use the term "rank and file employee" ? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!