Can Work Ethic Be Bolstered in Troubled Times?

Published: Apr 19, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Donna J. Bear

Work ethic: Rarely has an issue been so important to workplace productivity yet so difficult to influence. Some believe that work ethic is something one is born with. Others say it is nurtured through culture, family, or community, and some feel it can be learned. But regardless of how it is acquired (or not), the work ethic and attitudes that employees bring to their jobs each day can affect a firm's overall performance.

Depending on one's viewpoint on the origins of work ethic, there are strategies that can help companies build up their store of hard-working, effective employees, even during times of economic difficulty.

If work ethic is innate ...

In this scenario, identifying, assessing, and selecting employees who embody a strong work ethic are the strategies of choice. David Snyder, author of How to Hire a Champion: Insider Secrets to Find, Select and Keep Great Employees, suggests using validated tests to identify candidates with the attributes your firm seeks. Snyder says that high performers tend to possess integrity, tenacity, and a positive attitude and are self-sufficient ("'Champions' Share," 2008).

Another facet of this is ensuring that the organization offers the right mix of rewards to attract and retain targeted talent. Companies can gather information from employees via surveys, exit interviews, and focus groups regarding which aspects of their employment experience they most value. Benefits, compensation, work/life balance, learning opportunities, recognition programs, and other factors can all play a role, but these preferences might differ among various cultural or generational cohorts. Customizing the mix to individuals or cohort types might be the strategy that pays the biggest dividends.

If work ethic is nurtured ...

Different strategies come into play in this scenario. The manner in which an organization responds to employee absences, for example, can be a relevant factor. CCH Inc.'s survey of 317 HR professionals found that just one-third of unscheduled absences were actually attributable to personal illnesses; the bulk of no-shows were caused by a host of other reasons: Family issues represented 22%; personal needs, 18%; an entitlement mentality, 13%; and stress, 13% (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2007). And although BNA's Job Absence and Turnover Survey reported that first-quarter-2008 employee absence rates were near historic lows (BNA, 2008), that good news may have a darker side. Just having employees show up regularly may not be good enough in troubled times: Presenteeism can be as big a drain on productivity as absenteeism. When workers report for duty unable to perform adequately, they raise safety and health concerns as well as productivity issues, says CCH, Inc. (2007).

So, how can employers reduce absenteeism and presenteeism? CCH noted that paid-leave banks were thought to be the most effective approach for absence control. Employers can also adopt other positive practices, such as recognition programs and offerings that help workers cope with work/life balance issues and job stress. Yet, the CCH study showed that employers were more likely to use negative approaches, such as disciplinary action, to deal with these problems. Employers could probably do a better job of nurturing work ethic by taking a more holistic approach to these issues.

If work ethic is learned behavior ...

And if work ethic is something that can be learned, organizations may want to consider strategies that include positive reinforcement. For example, stock-trading company Scottrade implemented a new reward/recognition program called "Above & Beyond." The program delivers rewards for outstanding performance in serving customers, producing quality work, participating effectively on teams, and exhibiting other desired behaviors (Anderson, 2007).

Another way to approach it is through supervisor training. Employers might be able to influence work ethic by training supervisors to focus on how to deal with negative employee behavior as well as how to give recognition to those who work hard and responsibly.

Supervisors might also benefit from training on the periodic monitoring of job content. Such content often changes, and employers must be alert to how these shifts affect worker satisfaction and productivity. Boredom and burnout are two extremes on the work continuum, and job design is a critical activity that has the potential to address both ends of this dual challenge. In fact, Douglas Klein, president of Sirota Survey Intelligence (2008), contends that "bored employees have an even greater negative impact on an organization, lowering morale and productivity and draining resources." 

Institute for Corporate Productivity recommendationDevelop a productivity game plan to address work ethic and attitudes
During this time of economic challenge, increased corporate productivity is often cited as the saving grace for organizations. While customers may buy less, supplies may cost more, and expenses may need slashing, if companies can boost productivity, they might just be able to mitigate negative financial consequences. And since productivity is often viewed in terms of output per hour, programs and policies that address the amount and quality of time that employees put forth can have a direct impact on productivity.

Employers don't actually have to take a stand on whether work ethic is innate or learned behavior. They can adopt a range of the practices outlined above: recruiting and retaining those with a history of having a good work ethic, nurturing the kind of cultures that support behaviors that reflect hard work (such as lowered absenteeism and presenteeism rates), offering incentives that translate into improved work behaviors, and training supervisors in how to recognize a good work ethic and maintain it via proper job design.

Documents used in the preparation of this article include the following:

  • Anderson, L. (2007, September). Taking stock of Scottrade's efforts to reward and recognize workers. HRO Today, 45–46.
  •  BNA. (2008, June 23). Absence rates near historic lows despite increase from first quarter of 2007. Human Resources Report, 26(25), 697.
  • CCH Inc. (2007, October 10). CCH survey finds most employees call in "sick" for reasons other than illness.
  • "Champions" share common character traits - select and keep them. (2008, March 1). Best Practices in HR, 856, 1–2.
  • Sirota Survey Intelligence. (2008, January 30). Bored employees are more disgruntled than overworked ones, research finds.
  • Wolters Kluwer Law & Business. (2007). Reasons for unscheduled absences. 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey.

About the Author(s)

Donna J. Bear is the Leadership Knowledge Center Manager for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. She has a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.S. degree in management and is certified as a senior professional in human resources. Her previous experience as an HR generalist/consultant spans the PEO, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors.