There is one must-have trait (among others such as dependability and self-motivation) that 73% of companies desire the most in their candidates when it comes to employment.
Can you guess what it is? It’s work ethic.
Many job seekers struggle to understand that work ethic is more than just an innate mix of a good family upbringing and personal qualities, but a trait you can nurture.
So, what does work ethic mean?
Work ethic refers to a set of moral values that guide individuals towards successfully completing their work in a formal environment.
So the next time you see a job ad that requires candidates with a strong work ethic, understand that you’ve got to own a series of abilities, like professionalism or punctuality, that will help you—and your future employer, of course—deliver work within a set of agreed rules. Later in the article, we’ll go into all of these skills you need to cover for the strong work ethic aspect.
Realistically though, work ethic means different things to different people. While some see it as the guiding force behind an employee’s motivation at work, others see it as a complete list of skills that companies need to get their projects done.
More controversial than its simple definition remains whether or not a strong work ethic is something you’re born with or can learn.
Is a strong work ethic something you can learn and/or train?
The truth is somewhere between the innate and gained aspects.
I’ve seen that a strong work ethic is a behavior that is honed over years of our development. And it’s impacted by what we were trained to do from early childhood on. I’ve worked with hundreds of mid- to high-level professional women who, for instance, learned to become “perfectionistic overfunctioners”—doing more than is healthy and trying to get an “A+” in all of it. We developed that approach to life because our parents praised us more when we did, and they withheld affection when we weren’t striving to be the very best. While being a perfectionistic overfunctioner looks like a great work ethic, it’s a crushing way to live that can lead to exhaustion and burnout. —Kathy Caprino, Career Coach, Speaker, Leadership Trainer, and Senior Forbes contributor
No one is just born with a strong work ethic. It’s something you develop in time through all the small things you do and are taught in childhood—from the first human interactions you have to school group projects and small chores you get at home. All these are often involuntary learning opportunities we stumble upon at various stages in life.
Then there are the educational paths we deliberately take to develop our traits and, consequently, our work ethic capacity. Whether taking an after-school course or a business ethics class in college, educational institutions like the Oakton Community College, the University of Maryland, or the Australian National University offer their students business and work ethics classes. These courses aim to promote an understanding of the role of ethical behavior in the office and even develop the skills needed to handle all ethics-related situations—another proof of our capacity to learn these principles even later on in life.
So if work ethics are a set of skills, what are some of the traits that can be developed in time?
Punctuality, for instance, is something we’re all encouraged to master through several situations in our lives—from getting to an appointment on time to attending classes in school or just not missing a lecture. Similarly, our parents teach us to be respectful to other people and even indirectly guide us to become true professionals when they tell us to speak clearly and be consistent in our speech.
How to foster a strong work ethic as an employer
Just check out any random Glassdoor job descriptions, and you’ll notice that “strong work ethic” is almost everywhere. We’ve already researched for you, so here are the stats on job listings that include “work ethic” as a top requirement:
- 8,500+ jobs in New York
- 4,000+ jobs in London
- 4,000+ jobs in Los Angeles
- 4,000+ jobs in Washington, D.C.
- 3,500+ jobs in Chicago
And that’s just on Glassdoor!
Employers are always looking for people who are eager to give their best at work, follow the company’s policies, and be prepared for most challenges. It’s no surprise since 85% of employers consider attitude and work ethic the top attributes when picking their next employee. These are traits that are even more important than a candidate’s education.
Companies can’t get anything done without their employees, so they’ll look for the best ones. But what exactly are the benefits they’re looking to get from hiring a worker with a strong work ethic?
Get employees to show up on time
Regardless of how small your business is, set a detailed schedule complete with exact work hours, downtime, and meeting intervals to offer your employees a starting point for making the most out of their time. After all, nobody can work for 8 hours straight to their full potential. Also, it’s good to group their task with one of these recurring task management software for more clarity on what they have to work on and when.
There are other great examples in overcoming poor time management or solving procrastination. Most importantly, having employees who organize their time efficiently (or doing that in their place) will also help you deliver work within deadlines. Get them to show up 5 or 10 minutes earlier to have time to grab a coffee and set up their workspace before the actual start of the workday. You can offer an extra 10 minutes break to compensate—maybe after lunch. This is good for productivity since scientifically, our energy levels decrease around 2-4 pm anyway.
Develop a robust collaborative environment
Solid work ethics also refer to how your staff handles team relations, each role contributing to the project/work outcomes. In general, someone who is professional, dependable, and open to sharing information with the team is a great asset. These kinds of people find fulfillment in the success of the whole group. They can motivate and help others improve their work ethic to contribute to the company’s overall evolution directly.
Constructive feedback can only help the growth of the company. Have regular 1:1 feedback discussions with your employees to dig for hidden needs or challenges. Find out if your policies work for them and how you can improve them.
If you want to get unbiased feedback that can express the reality within your organization, use employee surveys to get anonymous answers so they won’t feel pressured to put together a sugar-coated answer. This will also encourage employees to participate in the company’s future trajectory actively and derive satisfaction from it.
Promote honesty and trust within the workplace
You’ll turn to your workers whenever you need to get a project done and delivered to your clients. That’s why hiring decisions are based on how a person will influence the projects’ performance and fit within the existing team.
I highlighted how trust begins at an upper-management level in a previous article. However, more and more line managers are expected to take the lead and master more than two management styles in parallel with creating an environment that promotes honesty and trust between team members. Here are a few tips to help you achieve this:
- Praise your employees when they deserve it.
- Avoid office gossip.
- Share appropriate information per everyone’s role in the team.
- Let others speak their minds and bring their personal contribution to a project’s development.
- Discuss professional growth with every individual and help them become better at their trade.
- Set an example yourself by delivering on the points promised, which shows consistency and character integrity.
Keep your team accountable for their work
Imagine having someone pretend to work just to make a living at the end of the day and fill in their timesheets. Sadly this is the reality we live in, as 51% of American workers are not engaged at work.
To avoid turning employees into mere clockwatchers, equip them with the right tools, techniques, and frameworks. We’re talking about work management software that keeps them accountable or personal monitoring routines, like time reporting. Time reports when combined with invoicing software will give the client an exact picture of what he’s paying for.
These won’t work though if you don’t create a trust-based environment where each person can take full ownership of their duties. This step is only easy if you’re willing to let go of the strict hierarchies and penalty measures you might have in place.
Only then can you expect your team to spot potential issues related to their tasks and develop realistic solutions to fix problems and prevent them from happening in the future.
How to nurture a strong work ethic as an employee
Shockingly or not, people change jobs 12 times during their lifetime—and that’s on average. The global workforce has just experienced a wave of job-hopping and job shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation of 2021.
We don’t quit our jobs just for wage-related reasons. Most of the time, it’s also a matter of how well your principles align with the company. Respect, trust, well-deserved recognition, and good work relationships have a big say in this equation. Yet, a study done by SoapBox found that only 23% of managers discuss an employee’s alignment to the company and mission during one-on-one meetings.
Here’s the hard truth: if you’re only looking for better pay, you’ll miss out on opportunities that are better suited to your values, hence ending up running from one job to another.
We’re always motivating ourselves to do more work so we can get a pay raise or a bonus, but how many of you are trying to be better at your craft for your good? If you can’t see the decisive advantages of having a strong work ethic for your personal development, the four main tips to keep in mind are below.
Organize your work efficiently
All successful projects are built on top of a solid structure. You need client data to build a website, ingredients to put together a recipe—you get it. Just like that, tasks should follow a systematic order if you want to finish work on time.
This doesn’t mean you have to work harder. Although there are 8 hours in a workday, on average, we spend a low 2 hours and 23 minutes doing productive tasks. Sure, slacking is inevitable, but you can get smart about distributing your time and tasks.
Smart work is all about giving your best while at work. Be it 6 or 4 hours, make sure you’re being your most productive self and clear out tasks that have the highest impact – both for the company and yourself.
For an overview of the methods you can use to organize and prioritize your work activities, check out our complete guide to task management.
Why do most people procrastinate? This is mainly because of Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands in direct proportion to the time allocated for its completion. So, if you have one day to complete a task, you’ll eventually spend all of it, even though it would take 3 hours to finish the job.
A strong work ethic motivates us to move further with our daily activities and say no to distractions when they pop up. There are dozens of methods you can use to better manage your time, from the famous Pomodoro technique to the automatic time tracking software that help analyze in-depth where you spend most of the day.
Time tracking in Paymo
In the long run, though, the best way to beat procrastination is to be stoic and think in terms of active and dead time. That means making the most out of the time you spend at work to learn and continuously develop yourself professionally. So instead of thinking a task is a waste of time, consider it a method of educating yourself either in terms of your hard or soft skills.
Start your free Paymo trial to see where your time is going.
You already know the old saying, “love your job.” It sets an unrealistic expectation that you have to enjoy any job you have in your life or else it’s not worth your time.
And while this is not always attainable, displaying a robust work ethic at every company you work for can help you gain respect. This is the first foundation you need to lay to gradually like and eventually love what you’re doing in the long run.
Employees who don’t feel valued for their results are 34% more likely to leave their jobs. So, in this case, it’s a two-way street. Even though a strong work ethic can win you points, it’s up to the managers, team leaders, and your co-workers to ensure you’re getting appropriate recognition.
Some situations when you can gain (or lose) respect include client interactions, team gatherings, or regular meetings. In all of these cases, you’ll get the opportunity to show your worth and gain respect in front of your colleagues and superiors. Simply showing up on time, being diplomatic, or carefully listening to what others have to say will help you get fair treatment and the desired respect.
Deliver quality and get rewarded
Beyond bonuses or company awards, learn and grow professionally to reach your milestones. Work on feeding your internal motivation to succeed.
To do this, eliminate anything that can be demotivational. That includes choosing the right people to hang out or grab lunch with and replacing all your negative thoughts with ideas you can put into practice. So next time you’re stuck in a rut, complaining about how you’re not doing anything, plan your next day, send a couple of emails, or just look for new opportunities online.
You’ll also need to grow and gain a better position within your team and company. While transitioning to a different company seems like a surefire way to obtain that management position you’ve always wanted, it also takes to be proactive to get that job in your current workplace. Whether that’s learning an extra skill, taking a side gig, or sharing your career goals with your superiors. After all, it’s not just employers who can demand quality and appreciation.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR YOUR NEXT JOB
Regardless of the position level you apply for, many employers will try to assess your work ethic level from the first interview. So stay aware of questions that aim to determine how well you can fit within a team and work on a project. Possible interview questions include:
- What are your best assets?
- How do you prioritize your work?
- How did you handle challenges at your past workplace?
- What are the next professional goals you want to achieve?
- What does work ethic mean to you?
Is there such a thing as “too much work ethic”?
We’re often willing to put in extra hours to get better pay, position, or just more recognition. But all this additional work will only accumulate in time and might lead to burnout.
To have a healthy work ethic, we also need healthy boundaries, where we can say “yes” to the top priorities that will move our jobs, activities, and lives forward. We’ll have to say “no” to endeavors and activities that won’t. We need to become adept at managing the pressures that bombard us. We need to manage our time bravely and assertively so that we’re not continually working all through the night, feeling that we can never unplug, turn off our phones and get off our email. A strong work ethic is helpful to successful living, but only as it supports you to build success on your terms and focus on what truly matters. —Kathy Caprino, Career Coach, Speaker and Leadership Trainer, and Senior Forbes contributor
Others are faking their disciplined work ethic to score a high-paying job at a prestigious company. This means they’re putting all their efforts into something they don’t believe in and acting against their internal principles. And this is the worst thing you can do as it will only affect your work performance. Like promoting a product you don’t believe in just because the job pays you well.
Both parties nourish a healthy employer-employee relationship. So faking your passion for an industry or company will eventually only lead to your departure.
Tracy Short refers to this kind of behavior as fear:
Work ethic is very personal. Sometimes it’s fear-based rather than a natural value.
Can it be faked and sustained? Maybe. But for how long before burnout?
From an individual’s perspective, a person should be looking for a good culture (but you need to know your preferences first). For a company – the right approach to talent and a recruitment strategy to attract and retain the best people for the company culture and mission.
If you often find yourself putting in more hours than needed just to deliver work faster, your fear of criticism might guide your actions. Fear of being fired, not doing a good job, of not doing the best you can. Many companies offer monetary or physical perks to their best performers to increase their productivity, all proven benefits in the short term. But we all know how these hijack our internal reward system in the long run.
The solution is to work smarter and tackle all your challenges tactfully without sacrificing your well-being. Start by understanding why and where you’re overworking, try to disconnect from work when you go home, use your vacation days, or simply stop striving for perfection.
When picking your next workplace, Pauline Haley, Career Coach, recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- Why is it important to my life and career?
- What will it give me on a personal and professional level?
- What are the non-negotiables?
- What boundaries do I need to put in place to maintain my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being?
- What is it that you can no longer tolerate in your consulting career?
- What do you want people to do about it?
- What will you do about it?
- Do you have the authority and the will to enforce it?
- How will you communicate your expectations?
After we leave one company, we all want to leave a lasting impression on our work ethic and be the type of worker all managers would like to work with again. That’s the goal you should keep in mind even before choosing your next workplace.
Work ethic remains a set of traits you can gradually develop, but remember that your principles will only match within certain companies. Sure, a methodical work ethic can determine whether you’ll make the right choices during a project. But a low level of respect and no understanding from the hiring side, and you’ll soon feel lost.
All this being said, the best advice you can take from it all is to invest in your best assets and learn to turn them into good work habits and not just occasional behavior.
If this article has inspired you even just a little bit to develop your work ethic, share your thoughts on how you make this possible. And also remember to work happy.
First published on November 4, 2019.