Is It About Work Ethic Or The Need To Change?

This last week, I was looking for contractors to do a job.   I called three that said they would provide free estimates.  All three said they would call me back to get more information.  Only one called me back and that prompted me to think business must be really good and their work ethic stinks!  But after doing some research on the topic of work ethics, I began to think more about it.

Employers have complained they can’t find workers with a good work ethic.  Some have suggested it’s a generational problem but is it a generational issue or is it a broader issue than placing blame on one specific generation?

You hear lots of stories about the work ethic of younger workers.  In an article from Science Daily, data, along with some analysis, was compiled to look at the work ethic of different age groups.  The conclusion was there was no specific age group that had a better work ethic than another.  It didn’t matter about the hours worked, the type of work or family responsibilities. So if it isn’t a generational problem, what is it?

In an op-ed discussion on American work ethic in a 2011 New York Times edition, one person said it isn’t so much work ethics has changed but the nature of work.  The discussion focused on manual labor jobs that seasonal workers do, or migrants.  Americans, this person said, are used to a better work life.  There’s machinery to help make the job a little easier as well as other aids that not only make the job less physically demanding but make it safer.  That sounds more like our work expectations have evolved.

To validate the point about work expectations, let’s look at gig workers and the work ethics for most of those jobs and also include the work ethic of regular employees.  Should the work ethics  be the same or is there a different set of ethics for contracted workers?  Or, is it more about the relationships or approach we may have with other individuals?  What  is the responsibility of the organization to individuals, or workers?

An article from the U. K. provided some perspectives to work ethics.  Similar views have been raised here in the U.S.  A couple of Uber drivers had two separately different ideas on what it meant to be an Uber driver.  One driver saw his relationship with Uber strictly as a business partnership.  He saw himself as a small business owner with Uber providing him with support services.  Uber provided the marketing and financial support so he could concentrate on building his business.  The other Uber driver saw the opposite.  He felt Uber didn’t support him to build his business.  There was no ability to find out about the trip that was being requested until the customer was picked up.  Some trips were not cost effective so the second driver said he lost money.  Another problem was customers would rate them but there was no feedback for the drivers to provide Uber to let them know if they had rude customers.  Some customers, he said, were racist and he didn’t have the ability to inform Uber about that.  These problems, he said, caused some drivers to lose their jobs or to experience a different set of work ethics than say the first Uber driver.

So do expectations and experiences relate to work ethic?  As  with the second driver in particular,  is it an obligation of Uber to create a better work environment for their drivers?  The first driver may not have had the customer issues the second driver had which may gave him a different opinion and shape his work ethic.  The second driver didn’t feel he had the support of Uber which clouded his ability to increase business.   These questions and experiences could also be the same for any worker. Can expectations and experiences be part of our work ethic?  Is work ethic more of a symptom of other things?

The U. K. article also cited another ride-sharing company.  The drivers were still contractors but for a flat fee, those drivers could purchase insurance, healthcare benefits and put money into a pension system.  Other benefits were also provided to drivers.  In addition, the company charged customers a small fee for the app maintenance instead of charging drivers.  The company approach with the drivers was to build a relationship. Their drivers were seen as people and not just platforms.  This, they thought, would help them to expand business, and it did.  It also impacted the drivers attitudes and work ethic which also helped to expand the business.

Other professionals in the article were asked their thoughts about the ethics of the gig economy and there was concern for workers being deemed independent contractors when they actually should be employees.  This has been an issue professionals in the U. S. have raised.  Do organizations classify workers as being independent instead of employees to save the organization from the burden of additional costs?  It’s something that’s being watched in both countries as there appears to be an increase of misclassification.  This type of behavior not only diminishes the attitudes of workers but their work ethic as well and, in turn, has an effect on whether an organization can actually increase their business.  When workers are viewed as simply a cost and not as humans to form relationships with, it can have a profound effect not just on work ethic but also on the ability of an organization to be profitable.

But going back to younger workers, there was another article from the Huffington Post, that appears to say work ethic may be about age but it may be for other reasons than what’s ordinarily thought.  Work ethic by age can be based on experience and through life lessons.  In the article, the writer responds to the complaints of younger worker.  The writer relates to her what she went through at the same age of the worker.  The outcome led to a positive experience but shaped the writer’s work ethic for the future.  The writer did not appear to consider the experiences of the worker and that may be a mistake.  We don’t know everything that may have attributed to someone’s work ethic.

Some people who have looked into generational differences, say younger people may have seen what happened when their parents were laid off or heard their parents talk about their work experiences which impacted their views on work.  Their parents may have missed some events in their earlier lives that also could impact their ability to provide what we consider a positive work ethic.

We don’t know necessarily know what shapes a person’s work ethic but it does appear values, expectations, experiences and maybe a few other things play a role.  It’s very similar to what we say to employers when they complain about the dead wood in their organizations.  Did  the people act like dead wood when you hired them?  If so, why did you hire them in the first place?  Most of the time, the employers say they weren’t dead wood at the time of hire.  Oh, we say, that dead wood must have evolved over time?  Why?

I truly understand the need for work to be completed on time especially when the customer demands it just like I needed a contractor but maybe we need to think about why people may have a different work ethic than what we do.  It may be more about listening to other individuals and learning about their experiences and viewpoints. Maybe it will require us to understand not everybody has the same expectations we have.  Maybe it’s about building relationships.  We each might have to make some changes but it could be a way to work together.  By doing that,  we may not have dead wood or poor work ethics.

Oh, by the way, I ended up hearing from another contractor who called and apologized for not calling back sooner but explained why.  It changed my opinion on work ethic.

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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