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Employers Must Pick Up the Slack, Instill Work Ethic in the Emerging Workforce

By Eric Chester

Pull any material handling equipment distributor aside and ask him or her to describe the emerging frontline workforce and terms like ‘entitled’ and ‘poor work ethic’ will enter into the conversation. I interact with thousands of managers each year, and this I can say with certainty. At a large management conference last spring, a regional training manager for a large restaurant chain lamented to me, “The work ethic has gotten so bad that our people are in the perpetual mode of trying to get something for nothing!”

Getting something for nothing isn’t bad, evil or immoral. Who doesn’t appreciate a little good fortune coming their way? However, when finding ways to separate effort from reward becomes a passionate pursuit, any treasure obtained in the process is marginalized.

There was a time when achievement meant more than possessions, and when character (a person’s qualities) was valued more than achievement. Americans felt good about putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. This was the time when “Made in America” was the best label any product could bear, quality was everyone’s priority and companies made decisions to ensure long-term stability – not short-term gains for stockholders.

I’m north of 50 and I remember that time. My four children (ages 26 to 31) don’t.

They’ve grown up in a world where most people work hard to find ways of avoiding hard work. They’ve heard stories telling how lottery winners, day traders, bloggers, dot-commers and Internet marketers have managed to beat the system and derive a huge bounty with little or no effort. They’ve been inundated with reality television that turns talentless fools into millionaires in the blink of an eye and with the greatest of ease. To them, an apprentice is not a young worker learning a trade at the foot of a master craftsman, but rather a devious schemer finagling to get a co-worker fired by Donald Trump.

Is it any wonder there is a burgeoning entitlement mentality among the new workforce? Work has degenerated to little more than a four-letter word, a necessary evil. It’s no longer viewed as something to be proud of, but something to disdain, to shortcut or to elude all together.

Employers can no longer afford to play employee roulette, gambling on the chances that they can find good people who’ve already learned a proper work ethic at home or at school. Parents now focus most of their attention on ensuring that their kids are healthy, happy and have a high selfesteem. Meanwhile, schools are facing widespread criticism and massive cutbacks and are concentrating every available resource on increasing test scores and keeping students safe. So who’s teaching Johnny to work?

Obviously, the burden of developing work ethic within the emerging workforce has shifted to employers, i.e. owners, managers, supervisors and trainers. Organizations that neglect this responsibility typically end up pointing the finger at parents and schools for the unsatisfactory product they are getting. But that does nothing to correct the problem and it exacerbates negative expectations.

Work Ethic, by the Book

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 4.59.12 PMWebster’s states that work requires activity, the exertion of energy, the process of doing. Ethic, it tells us, is based upon “ethos” or the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. So, simply stated, work ethic is knowing what to do and doing it.

What is it that every employee in every job in every industry needs to know and to do (take action on)? I’ve personally asked more than 1,500 employers and have aggregated their responses to create a list of seven indisputable core values that I firmly believe every employer demands: positivity (positive attitude), reliability, professionalism, initiative, honesty, respect, and gratitude (cheerful service).

Look over this list for a minute. Would you want someone on your payroll who demonstrated six of them, but was deficient in the seventh? (For example, they were strong in everything with the exception of reliability (you couldn’t count on them to show up). Or they had six of these values, but were lacking in integrity (you couldn’t trust them.)

Of course not. Regardless of the nature of your business, you demand all seven core values in every employee. And likewise, they want to work for a company – and a manager– that demonstrates all of those traits. They are non-negotiables.

Most training programs, unfortunately, assume employees already possess these core values, so they focus exclusively on developing job-specific hard skills. But if your worker is constantly complaining and bringing all those around him down, or he arrives for his shift wearing a bath robe and flip flops, or he smuggles a few items from your inventory in his jacket on his way out, his impressive skill set is not going to offset the negative impact he has on your bottom line.

It’s not enough to simply alert your workforce to the consequences (and requisite disciplinary actions) of absenteeism, dress code infractions, dishonesty, idleness, texting on company time, etc. You must have a plan and a process for developing and reinforcing work ethic values in your people. It’s too important to leave this to chance.

Game on! Here are five considerations to help you instill core work ethic values and develop them in your emerging workforce:

1. Revisit and recommit to the core values and character traits that your organization demands from every employee. (If you don’t already have one, create this starting with the non-negotiables of honesty, reliability, respect, etc.) Ask your senior leaders for input and invite open discussion as to why they believe each item on the list is crucial to the success of every employee on your payroll.

2. Revisit your hiring process to see how you’re evaluating job candidates based upon these values. Make certain you’re asking questions that get them to describe in detail how their past work-related performance demonstrates the values you hold sacred, e.g. “Tell me about a time when you overcame a significant challenge to finish a project on schedule.” “Give me an example of a rule or policy in a previous job you found stupid or outdated. Did you comply with it or find a way around it?”

3. Examine your training program to see how you can integrate these concepts into your present skills training. Remember, it’s not enough to simply mention values or provide a warning to those who do not exhibit them. For the values to be internalized and lived-out, they must be integrated into case studies, role-playing, eLearning platforms, etc.

4. Take significant measures to foster a workplace culture that is centered around your non-negotiable core work ethic values. Begin meetings and team huddles by allowing employees to share personal examples of how they went out of their way for a customer, overcame a challenge to arrive to work on time, chose to do “the difficult right” as opposed to “the easy wrong,” etc. Share your stories, as well.

5. Celebrate work ethic. Talk about people (employees, associates, even celebrities) who you believe exhibit great work ethic and provide examples. When you see great work ethic exemplified by your employees, recognize and reward it with praise, awards, impromptu celebrations or even incentives. Remember that what gets rewarded gets repeated.

It’s time to stop complaining about the lack of work ethic you see in your emerging workforce and take steps to revive it. The payoff is huge. After all, your future depends on your ability to instill within them the work ethic they should have learned at home and school, but didn’t.

Eric Chester will present “Reviving Work Ethic” on May 7 at 8 a.m. at the MHEDA Convention.

Eric Chester is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of Reviving Work Ethic. He is also the Founder of the Center for Work Ethic Development. He can be reached at 303-239-9999 or at eric@revivingworkethic.com or follow him on Twitter at @eric_chester.