Why Employers Need to Help Revive Our Emerging Workforce’s Work Ethic

By Eric Chester

Imagine that you are walking alone across a vacant parking lot on a breezy day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a crumpled-up bill blowing at your feet. You immediately step on it to keep it from escaping, and then reach down to discover that it’s a $100 bill.

No one is within 500 yards of you, and the wind is swirling leaves and other bits of paper around as far as you can see. You couldn’t find the rightful owner if your life depended on it. The bill is yours to keep.

Thinking only of your emotions as they unfold at that particular moment, allow me to ask you a very simple question:

Are you happy?

Yes, but are you proud?

Of course you are. Unless you’re allergic to large bills, your response was an enthusiastic “yes!”

So here’s the follow-up question pertaining solely to this $100 cash windfall moment:

Are you proud?

Unless you’re overthinking this, you’re probably shaking your head or thinking, “No, not really.” You’re happy about your new riches, but you’re not particularly proud. You didn’t do anything to earn this free money other than burn a calorie or two bending down to pick it up.

In this scenario, there was no goal, no effort, no sacrifice, no accomplishment . . . nothing to be proud of.

Getting something for nothing isn’t bad, or 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 is no enduring joy without pride, and pride cannot be realized without contribution.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word proud as “feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated.”

Today’s ethic: avoiding hard work

This is a great definition, but I think that the sequence of the nouns achievements and qualities needs to be reversed. A person’s qualities lay the foundation for his or her achievements. It’s hard to achieve anything worthy of merit without demonstrating qualities like reliability, determination, perseverance, and integrity. And while possessions can make you happy, they won’t make your chest swell with pride if they’ve blown into your life without achievement.

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.

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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 coworker fired by Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, The 4-Hour Workweek is more than a national bestselling book; it’s a rallying cry.

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 rather something to disdain, to shortcut, or to elude all together. (Thankfully Franklin, Edison, Carver, Bell, Ford, Einstein, Salk, Disney, Gates, ­Winfrey, Jobs, and Zuckerberg didn’t see it that way.)

It’s time for employers to step up

If we do nothing to reverse this gross misconception, we will not only be doing our kids a great disservice; we will be allowing the further contamination of our labor pool.

Leaders can no longer stand by idly in hope that parents and teachers will resume the responsibility for instilling work ethic. Parents now focus most of their attention on ensuring that their kids are healthy, happy, and have a high self-esteem. Meanwhile, schools are facing widespread criticism and massive cutbacks, and are concentrating every available resource on increasing test scores and keeping students safe.

Therefore, the burden of developing work ethic within the emerging workforce has shifted to employers. Organizations that neglect this responsibility will continue to point the finger at parents and schools for the unsatisfactory product they are getting. They’ll have no choice but to export labor overseas, replace human interaction with touchscreen technologies, or churn-and-burn their frontline people, whom they see as an expendable commodity.

Leaders that accept this new reality and rise to the challenge will create cultures that promote the qualities and values described in the pages that follow. In so doing, they will develop talent pools that soon run deep with creative, energetic, and dedicated individuals whose efforts boldly exclaim, “I’m proud of my work.”

It’s time to revive work ethic.

Excerpted with permission from Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce, by Eric Chester. Copyright 2012 by Eric Chester. For copies, visit revivingworkethic.com. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at EricChester.com and follow him at @eric_chester