Is the Notion of a 'Good Work Ethic' Generationally Biased?

Is the Notion of a 'Good Work Ethic' Generationally Biased?
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Psychologist, Speaker, Trainer
3 min read
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Anyone who talks to business leaders, managers or supervisors for very long will eventually hear complaints about younger employees not having a good work ethic. Sometimes the comments are so intense, it feels like millennial bashing.

Given the amount of attention (and verbiage) being focused upon generational differences, it seemed prudent to explore whether the concept of a good work ethic is primarily based on the worldview of boomers or Gen X-ers and if the characteristics of being a good worker transcended generations.

The issue becomes clearer after answering the question "Is there a reality basis for determining what a good work ethic is?"

The answer to that is yes.

Related: 5 Ways to Lead by Example at Work

What your customers and clients need from your organization defines the type of behaviors your employees need to demonstrate. Your customers want your employees to be available when they need them and to be responsive to inquiries and requests. They want good quality products and services.  They would like the work completed when promised and in a timely manner. Clients want the problems they are experiencing resolved.

So the behaviors that create these results are what defines a good work ethic. Here's a list of some of the characteristics I have identified:

1. Showing up regularly 

2. Being on time, ready to work 

3. Listening to and following instructions 

4. Demonstrating a willingness to learn 

5. Performing quality work as opposed to going through the motions 

6. Completing work in a timely fashion 

Of course the notion of being a hard worker, a term used frequently by boomers, needs to be defined: A hard worker is seen as someone who stays on task without needing close supervision to do so; a person who puts forth consistent, good effort without taking excessive breaks and an individual who continues to work hard even when tired or not supervised.

Employers can inform their employees what the clients want by setting up rules and policies to meet those needs. 

Related: The SEAL Teams Don't Accept These 10 Phrases, and Neither Should You

So then the question becomes "Do the characteristics of a good work ethic differ across generations?" That is, is a good work ethic defined differently by one’s context?

From the research I’ve done, the answers are no and maybe.

Generally, it appears that a good work ethic consists of many of the same behaviors, regardless of the generation an employee comes from. So, a good work ethic does not differ significantly across generations.

A caveat exists, however. Being available to answer a client’s questions can differ according to the customer's expectations, which are often framed by that person's generation. For a younger client, getting answers via a text message, an email or a chat room may be the preferred means of communication (and it's OK if the dialogue occurs between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.) 

In contrast, an older Gen X-er may want to schedule a call or videoconference.

Is one format better than the other? Yes, the one the client wants.

So, ultimately, it appears that the answer to the initial question (“Is a good work ethic generationally biased?) is yes. But it is the expectations of the client -- not of the employee or even the employer -- that are important. 

Related: How to Bridge the Workplace Generation Gap

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