A gap in literature: learning work ethics

I remember when I was young, my sister took care of me while both my parents went to work. I rarely saw them, and when I did it would be either my mum or my dad but never them together. They were working day in, day out, on weekends and weekdays. I always knew they were hardworking. However, through the eyes of a child that was what being a working adult meant.

We know that parents can instill work ethics in children by being good role models. In the simplest tasks like chores, parents can display a commitment to get them done, no matter how laborious and repetitive they are. By showing pride in what they do, they show an exemplary attitude where they value their work. This is the smallest, perhaps simplest definition of a good work ethic.

There is a huge gap in research, addressing the question of whether work ethics stabilise during childhood. Alternatively, whether they can be acquired or shifted throughout time. In general, they are soft skills but we’re not certain where they come from. This is somewhat unfortunate because it dictates self-development, the way we’re hired, the way we work and the reason for staying with organisations, hence will have extensive implications in workplace harmony.

Work ethics are so important that employers often screen candidates with behavioral questions in their interviews. They are the best devices to probe in previous job performances; questions such as:

  • “Tell me about a time when you worked really hard”
  • “What is your proudest accomplishment?”
  • “Describe a time when you overcame a significant obstacle”

These questions may also be so open-ended as to welcome any answer, possibly because there are no set standards or standardised constituents of work ethics in the first place. Depending on the organisation or individuals, traits cited may include professionalism, respectfulness, dependability, dedication, determination, accountability, humility, gratitude, team orientation, initiative…the list goes on.

Perhaps the positive outcome of this working definition is that people control their own ideals of what a work ethic is. It empowers an individual to improve on relevant traits that can drive them forward, and bring something unique to the workplace that is a result of various challenges, experiences, upbringing and backgrounds. It therefore means that work ethics can be learnt as career develops – they do not have to be fixed. However, more developmental and organisational research in this area should be conducted to confirm this hypothesis. More needs to be known about the precise mechanisms and transient benefits of work ethics even though it has always been treasured by employers and other team members.

Thanks for reading! 🙂


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