Work Ethic

Is he ready for management responsibilities?

Work Ethic: noun.  A belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character.

I’ve written before about the differences between the generations at work. Just about every U.S. generation has blasted the subsequent one as the Generation that Ruined it All. No manners, no respect, and no work ethic. This time, the current generation may be in agreement with their parents. When a 2010 Pew Research study asked Millennials (those born after 1980) to identify what makes their generation unique, they were the first in four generations to drop “work ethic” from the list. They seemed to agree with the older groups that Millennials had ceded the work ethic high ground. What does that mean?

For one thing, it means that there will be tension in the workplace between managers (Baby Boomers listed “work ethic” as number one in their generation’s distinctive characteristics) and the emerging, or entry level workforce. Eric Chester is the author of Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce.  Chester has spoken to or surveyed over 1,500 employers in the course of his career, and he admits that people can define work ethic in different ways. For the WWII generation, for example, “hard work” meant hard physical labor, something that exhausted your body. I’m not the only Baby Boomer who has been told by her parents that hours spent training, writing or doing taxes “wasn’t work.”

For Baby Boomers, “hard work” meant long hours. We believed in the value of mental labor, but we made up for the relative ease of working with our minds by working long hours; in many corporate environments, working an eight-hour day made you a slacker. Twelve hours won you grudging respect; if you had time for fun or family, you kept quiet about it, lest you be branded as a lightweight and passed over for partner. For Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), the long hours made no sense; they were willing to work smarter, but not longer, on the job. While the definitions of working hard may have differed, each generation (until now)agreed that working hard was important.

Chester has composed a list of qualities that most employers would consider to be the definition of “having a good work ethic.” He lists them as:

  • Positive people,
  • who show up on time and dressed appropriately, and
  • go out of their way to create value at work, and
  • do more than is required of them, and
  • are honest, and play by the established rules, and
  • give cheerful, friendly service, no matter what the situation is.

Notice my emphasis on the word and; I think I heard a collective sigh from the managers who supervise young workers. Most of them would settle for any one or two of the above qualities, let alone all. Chester writes, “It’s true that every generation struggles to some degree with learning work ethic. But a lack of work ethic has become a systemic, defining quality of our culture – not just a brief phase of life for some teenagers.” He breaks don work ethic into a simple grid with two axes: knowing what to do and doing it.

  • Chester describes workers who don’t know what to do and don’t do it as idle; they add no value and are most likely to be fired and stay out of work. They’re clueless.
  • Workers who know what to do and don’t do it are cheating. They know the rules, but try to get away with not doing what’s required. They’re a corrosive influence in any workplace.
  • There are workers who don’t know what to do, but get lucky and do it right every once in a while. They’re actually more likely to be in the idle quadrant, but manage, for instance, to show up on time when traffic is light. They may be able to be salvaged.
  • The Valued workers know what to do and actually do it.

The trick, Chester writes, is to know how to recognize and reward compliance, instead of ignoring it and waiting for brilliance. Build more compliance in your organization, and you may increase the odds of getting some occasional brilliance. The danger in ignoring workers who are meeting the minimum requirements of the job is that the pull of a bad attitude is so powerful. More on that in later posts.

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