Work Ethic

Work EthicMembers of the business community often express concerns that the work ethic among employees has diminished. This perceived decline is often linked to lower levels of job performance and increases in turnover, absenteeism, and counterproductive behavior in the form of unauthorized breaks and theft on the job. Others, however, maintain that the work ethic is not in decline but that what it means to be committed to the value and importance of hard work has simply changed over the years. Regardless of one’s point of view on this issue, the work ethic is still clearly important to employers. For instance, in one survey of 150 managers, it was found that nearly 60 percent ranked work ethic as the most valued characteristic to consider when hiring an employee for an administrative position, assuming that the applicant had the requisite skills necessary to perform the job. Indeed, work ethic was viewed as being more important than intelligence, enthusiasm, and education. In another research survey, it was discovered that more than 50 percent of hiring managers expressed greater concern for a job candidate’s attitude than aptitude.

History Of The Work Ethic

While contemporary views toward the work ethic are quite favorable, such was not the case throughout the history of civilization. For instance, the ancient Greeks and Romans disdained manual labor and held individuals that engaged in this activity in low regard. It was not until the Protestant Reformation, led chiefly by religious leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century, that attitudes toward manual labor changed greatly. Luther espoused the belief that all vocations, no matter how menial, served God and were therefore useful. Individuals were encouraged to apply themselves diligently in their given profession (known as their “calling”) to which they were placed by birth and society. To attempt to change one’s calling in pursuit of higher goals was considered a transgression against God, as he alone determined one’s place in the world.

Extending Luther’s doctrines, the French theologian John Calvin introduced the concept of predestination— the belief that one’s ability to attain eternal life was predetermined by God. The selected few, known as the elect, would find their place with God, whereas others would be damned for eternity. What made the concept of predestination most disconcerting was that there was no way to tell for sure if one was a member of the elect. People reconciled this fact by subscribing to the belief that economic success was evidence of being chosen by God for eternal salvation. Thus hard work was a vehicle toward economic success, and economic success was a sign of salvation.

Definition Of Work Ethic

Modern formulations of the work ethic construct stem from Max Weber’s two-part essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” written in 1904 and 1905. Weber argued that capitalism’s introduction and rapid expansion in Western Europe and North America was greatly influenced by the Puritan value of asceticism (i.e., scrupulous use of time and strict self-denial to achieve personal discipline) and the belief in a calling from God. He argued that other Protestant faiths shared common theological underpinnings that stressed the value and importance of work for its own sake; thus the term Protestant work ethic came into being.

Despite being originally conceived as a religiously oriented concept, research in the area has failed to find differences in work ethic beliefs among members of differing faiths. This is not surprising, given that all major religions have espoused the importance of work. Thus it is more appropriate to refer to the work ethic without its original religious connotation.

Aligned with Weber’s position, current conceptualizations tend to view work ethic as an attitudinal construct pertaining to work-oriented values. An individual espousing a high work ethic would place great value on hard work, independence, fairness, wise and efficient use of time, delay of gratification, leisure activities that serve a rejuvenating function, and the intrinsic value of work.

The Future Of Work Ethic

While what is viewed as the traditional work ethic has been highly valued in the United States, the argument may be made that the meaning people hold of this construct should be revisited due to the influence of factors such as workforce diversity, unscrupulous corporate behavior, and corporate downsizing.

The attitudes and beliefs that one adopts about work, as well as a host of other issues, are clearly impacted by one’s cultural upbringing and generational cohort. Given the vast diversity represented in our nation’s workforce, it is likely the case that there is not a universally accepted work ethic. Specifically, the work-related values held by one group may differ from that of another. This has important implications when one seeks to understand not only the meaning of work ethic to different people but also how it is reflected in behaviors in the workplace.

The recent spate of corporate misdeeds, fraud, and unethical activities has caused people to have a diminished trust in employers. This lack of trust has likely affected the levels of commitment and devotion employees feel toward their place of work, which in turn influences their job-related behavior. Furthermore, corporate restructurings, mergers, and downsizings have led to a large percentage of the workforce being laid off at one time or another—often to remain unemployed for considerable periods of time. Associated with these activities is the rise of jobs that are part time or non-permanent in nature. Notwithstanding the obvious financial challenges with which many people have been confronted, individuals also must deal with the psychological effects of having one’s work role arbitrarily taken away and the impact of being unemployed or underemployed. Such events would likely impact levels of dedication, commitment, and loyalty to future employers.

In summary, while interest in the work ethic has withstood the test of time, it should not be assumed that its meaning has ceased to evolve. Future research and discussion should address the impact, if any, that the aforementioned variables have on the meaning of work ethic in our society. An understanding of these issues will serve to advance knowledge of the work ethic construct and its implications in the workplace.

See also:


  1. Cherrington, D. J. 1980. The Work Ethic: Working Values and Values That Work. New York: AMACOM. Flynn, G. 1994. “Attitude More Valued Than Ability.” Personnel Journal 73:16. Furnham, A. 1990. The Protestant Work Ethic: The Psychology of Work-related Beliefs and Behaviours. London, England: Routledge.
  2. Lessnoff, M. H. 1994. The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic: An Enquiry into the Weber Thesis. Brookfield, VT: E. Elgar. Nelson, B. 1973. “Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Its Origins, Wanderings, and Foreseeable Future.” Pp. 71-130 in Beyond the Classics, edited by C. Glock and P. Hammond. New York: Harper & Row. Weber, M. [1904-1905] 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by T. Parsons. [Reprint]. New York: Scribners.