What is a “Good Work Ethic”, really?

June 10, 2007 2:47 pm Published by

When I talk to business owners and managers and ask them what they are looking for in potential employees, “a good work ethic” is always one of the characteristics cited. (This is also a frequent response from parents when they are asked what character qualities they desire for their children.) Unfortunately, today there are many factors which have undermined this “good work ethic” to the point that one of the major complaints about young people in our culture today is their lack of motivation and drive.

Often, when individuals use common terms, they do not always have the same meaning across different people. I find this to be the case when people talk about having a “good work ethic”. Most people have a general idea of what a “good work ethic” is, but when asked, they really can’t define it. Often they stumble and say something like, “You know, someone who works hard.”  From my point of view, this is not a sufficient description. And more importantly, if a character quality cannot be accurately defined, it cannot be effectively developed.

Therefore, let’s examine more closely those skills and behaviors that a “good worker” demonstrates.

  • Punctual. Employers want someone who will show up on time and will be ready to work. (Hint: “on time” to employers means being at your desk or workstation ready to work at the starting time, not rushing in at the last minute, with your Starbucks in one hand and a bagel in your mouth.) A major issue in our culture today is that people frequently “run late” (which really reflects either a lack of planning, low commitment on their part, or poor self discipline.)
  • Follows Instructions.  Employers often claim to me that many people today either don’t listen or they don’t follow instructions, thinking that they know how to do the task better than their supervisor or employer. From a business perspective, it is critical for workers to follow instructions and procedures which the business has found to be most effective, safe and produces the product or service that the customer desires. Rarely will an employer keep on an employee who consistently fails to follow the instructions given to them.
  • The Ability and Willingness to Learn.  A critical characteristic for career success in our rapidly changing culture is an individual’s ability to continue to learn. With the explosion of information as well as new technologies being developed all the time, an individual must continue to learn in order to function in the world today. Obviously, each person’s ability to learn varies according to their individual abilities. However, a willingness to learn and an interest in learning is an important character quality that will lead to success rather than an attitude of “I don’t need to know that.”
  • Performs Quality Work.  Paying attention to detail, doing a job which one can be “proud of”, and completing a task successfully are important characteristics for young people to develop. Given that “work” is essentially about providing goods or services to customers, those products and services provided need to be at or above the quality desired by the customer. An important characteristic to be developed is for an individual to be able to provide good quality work without being closely supervised. (And “going above and beyond the call of duty” makes an employee stand out to their supervisor!)
  • A Positive “Can Do” Attitude. Individuals who approach a task with the attitude of “let’s see how we can get this done” are obviously going to be more successful than workers who have a negative attitude, are critical and complaining. Some of my friends describe this as a “yes” face. Obviously, individuals with a positive attitude are more pleasant to be around than those with a sour, complaining demeanor.
  • Complete Work in a Timely Fashion.  This relates to punctuality but deserves further comment. Customers and clients need tasks completed so that they can continue their business and daily life tasks. Few things are more frustrating than to have engaged a company to do work for you, have the project started, possibly pay them for part of the work and then the project drags out indefinitely. The ability to correctly estimate how much time a project will take (allowing for challenges and mistakes) and then being able to gather the resources necessary to complete the task on time is an important skill set to have.
  • Being a Hard Worker.  A good, “hard worker” is every employer’s delight. But even this quality needs to be defined. A hard worker does the following: (a) stays on task, and does not need close supervision or repeated redirection to do so; (b) puts forth a consistent, good effort and does not take excessive breaks; (c) continues to work hard even when they are tired and even though no one is watching them; (d) completes the job given, and when they complete a task, they look for other work to be done.

So, it seems there are a few ways to use this information. If you are a business owner, manager or supervision, you could share this information with your employees as a way of educating them of the characteristics you desire. I also would expect that a number of parents will be sharing this list with their kids/teens/young adult children. And finally, if each of us individually works on these characteristics in our own lives — the world will be a better place to live and work! (Sounds corny, but true.)


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June 10, 2007 2:47 pm


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