Volume 42, Number 3 (2005)
Roger B. Hill
University of Georgia
Western Carolina University
Although there have been numerous changes within the workplace during the past century, employers continue to search for employees with a strong work ethic. Employers often cite a strong work ethic as the most desired characteristic in a new employee (Denka, 1994; Hill & Petty, 1995; Young, 1986,). Work ethic can be described as a set of characteristics and attitudes in which an individual worker assigns importance and merit to work. Those with a strong work ethic place a positive value on doing a good job and describe work as having an intrinsic value of its own (Cherrington, 1980; Yankelovich & Immerwahr, 1984). Employers seek employees who are dependable, have good interpersonal skills, and demonstrate initiative. Prior research has associated these characteristics with a high level of work ethic (Hill & Petty).
Employers value a strong work ethic because of the economic benefits it provides to business (Ali & Falcone, 1995). Businesses with employees who are committed to work have a market advantage. Furthermore, when a new hire does not have sufficient commitment to work and lacks dependability, interpersonal skills, or initiative the organization is at risk of losing productivity and profits.
Even in good economic times many able-bodied people are unemployed (Shimko, 1992). Many of the chronically long-term unemployed—that is, unemployed for three months or longer—include public assistance recipients, older homemakers entering the workforce, young black males, members of other minority groups, the handicapped, and individuals with criminal records. The cycle of the long-term unemployed includes periods of unemployment, short-term work, public assistance, and then a return to unemployment (Blunt & Richards, 1998).
Many see unemployment as a vice (Beder, 2000), and those who do not work tend to be viewed as lazy and unmotivated by American society. Furthermore, there is a belief that there are plenty of jobs for the unemployed (Sennett, 1998) and that those who are unemployed are not truly committed to seeking work. Employers sometimes assume that the long-termed unemployed are opposed to hard work or feel the unemployed lack the necessary work experience to develop a high level of work ethic (Blunt & Richards, 1998). In addition, some employers believe that welfare recipients not only lack a work ethic, but also bring up children who fail to develop an adequate work ethic (Beder, 2001).
Not all unemployed persons are viewed the same, however, and the circumstances that led to the unemployment can have a significant impact on the employer's perceptions of an individual's work ethic. Those who are unemployed because of a plant closure or layoff are viewed differently from other unemployed people. Downsizing and plant closures are seen as changes in the economy that are unrelated to the individual's work ethic (Sennett, 1998). Job loss in manufacturing is associated with the mechanization and computerization of the workplace (Applebaum, 1998). Unemployment due to a plant closure or downsizing does not carry the negative stigma associated with unemployment of other types. These workers are not viewed as unemployed due to their lack of work ethic, but for reasons beyond their control.
Employers also see distinctions in the work ethic of different age groups. One view, articulated by Filipczak (1994), is that 18-35 year old employees are lazy and cynical. They are viewed as being uninterested in work as a way of life and as having no commitment to companies or organizations. Often referred to as Generation X, persons in this age group tend to be less loyal and change jobs more often (Jurkiewicz & Brown, 1998). Managers often feel that they are parenting these workers (Filipczak), and many managers prefer not to work...