Looking for employees with strong work ethic? Start by defining what it means to you.

Search “work ethic” on Indeed.com and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results. Why? Because employers want it. In fact, they want it so much that it’s often listed above education and experience. But guess what? Work ethic doesn’t exist. It’s not a real thing.

Work Ethic is a Belief

Don’t believe it? Ask Siri or Cortana or Google Now to define work ethic. You’ll hear something like: “The principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward.” Oh. Work ethic is a principle. And a principle is a belief, an idea. It’s a kind of general rule—which is nice to know and high-level and all, but you can’t hire a principle and expect it to sweep under the counter before it goes home at night.

A recent Manta survey asked small business owners to identify the most difficult trait to find when hiring and 48 percent of respondents noted ‘a strong work ethic.’ But it’s likely that this four-word phrase meant something unique to each of them.

Work Ethic is Assumed

Most of us assume that everyone shares our definition of work ethic. Not so, what business owners and hiring managers mean when they list work ethic as a must-have hiring trait is, that they want someone who works like them and is wired like them. Most people who are business owners or managers rose through the ranks because of their work ethic. You know, they showed up for work on time, they did what they were told, they gave their best, they respected the rules. They played the game.

You may be nodding your head in agreement right now because that is what most people mean when they say they want to hire a strong work ethic—they want a person who knows how to play the game. But what game? And by whose rules? Unlike in past generations, today’s job seekers don’t show up with work ethic in their pockets alongside the keys to the car they worked two jobs to earn, grateful for any wage offered and happy to do any dirty job that needs doing. If that’s your expectation and you view modern applicants through that lens, you’ll continue to seek work ethic in vain.

Work Ethic is Workplace-Cultural

While interviewing thousands of leaders in businesses large and small that are today’s desired employers—those consistently earning top marks as the best places to work. What we learned was completely at odds with our own expectations. Leadership at these companies is shifting focus from what’s best for customers to what’s best for employees. They’ve figured out that by giving employees what they want and need to thrive in the workplace—in short, what they expect—customer happiness takes care of itself. And what employees want and are demanding in huge numbers is, at the very least, flexible schedules, collaborative work cultures, a shot at making the world a better place and a living wage. Oh, and your help and respect is also on the list.

Work Ethic is Teachable

It is possible to create a company culture that demands a strong work ethic and will nudge out those who don’t embrace it. But leadership has to instill it. Let’s jump back to the model that work ethic is an assumed belief that varies from individual to individual. Where’s the bridge to teaching it?

If you’re still living in the land of ‘How dare they expect anything they should be happy for the job,’ We have a suggestion for you, and it isn’t lowering your expectations. Stop. Breathe. Take a look. Ask yourself a question. What are you doing—not to motivate your people—but what are you doing to demotivate them? Try to be grateful for the skill sets they have because many of those skills come in really handy for you. They’re fresh, they’re young, they’re tech-savvy, they’re streetwise, they can take your cash register apart and put it back together blindfolded, but they can’t count back change from a dollar. Help them.

Referring in great part to millennials, but stresses that a lack of work ethic can’t be blamed on one generation. Older employees are being asked to shift out of their own comfort zones, as well. There are amazing young people out there who play the game and want to climb the career ladder. And there are baby boomers with no work ethic. You can’t lay all of this at the feet of young people.

Work Ethic is Yours to Define

Finding and hiring for work ethic may well break down to knowing how to tell employees what to do and explaining how to do it—in the language they understand. We have identified seven terms that together construct the work ethic model that’s so elusive to employers. Employers want positive, enthusiastic people (Positive Attitude) who show up on time (Reliability), are dressed and properly prepared (Professionalism), who go out of their way to add value/do more than required (Initiative), play by the rules (Respect), are honest (Integrity) and give cheerful, friendly service (Gratitude). Those seven terms are the fundamental core values that every employer, at every level—from part-time mail clerk to CEO—tell us are non-negotiable.

Clearly, work ethic isn’t a thing that shows up in a tidy package, ready to work. Yet the values inherent in it are definable, actionable, time-tested and recognizable. And the good news is that you can teach them.

By Manta

Fivenson Studios is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, our graphic design team specializes in logo and web page design, as well as marketing campaigns for social and print media. From flyers and brochures to targeted landing pages, we aim to bring your company into the spotlight and reach a greater range of potential customers.

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