[Online Exclusive] Work Ethic in the Age of Career Uncertainty
By Kah Hock (Danny) Koh
Workplace values and ethics as a defense against the ever-evolving labour market landscape
When we discuss career pathways and labour market trends, is it appropriate for us to sum up the discussion using the phrase “change is the only constant”? Current realities seem to indicate that technology, healthcare careers and “green jobs” are the thriving industries where jobs are aplenty. Where are we getting all this labour market information from? Information on local, regional and national labour market conditions come to us via a variety of sources which include government; media; industry leaders; recruitment agencies; educators and career counsellors (not to mention the friendly advice from family and loved ones!).
How are we making sense of all this information in an era of increasing uncertainty and risk? Bland & Roberts-Pittman (2014) proposed a closer look at “existential theory” and the “chaos theory” of career decision-making to help both career counsellors and clients navigate career decision-making in the current era of uncertainty. While both theories will benefit from more practice-based research, they both seem to tell us one thing: an individual’s career identity is a fluid, ongoing process of self-discovery and engagement with surrounding environments.
In the age of information overload, how we interpret and make use of all career-related information is crucial. It is not surprising that many of us can get overwhelmed and confused, developing short-term views on careers which focus on “what is trending,” what new skills to acquire and where we can get them so we can land those elusive “good middle-class jobs.” The long-term view of career however – the real key to building a lasting, meaningful career – involves a great deal of introspection so we can bring unique value to any employer no matter which workplace we find ourselves in.
During my outreach to various local employers as part of job development efforts, I have heard from many who lament that workers want “work” but do not want “to work.” Some employers even directly ask me if I have “recent immigrants who are not locally born.” These employers stress that the work ethic of new hires leaves much to be desired. “Lack of punctuality” and “not calling in sick” are frequently mentioned examples.
Wanted: Work ethic
Recently, the Financial Post reported that a survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in September 2016 revealed that 75% of small business owners were not impressed with the work ethic of new employees. Years before, renowned writer, speaker and entrepreneur Bill Taylor wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in which he expounded on why it makes strategic sense for organizations to hire first for attitude, then skill. These readings, employer feedback and further reflection has led me to realize that there is a key factor that distinguishes those who can find work, retain work and build a career from others who cannot. That factor is work ethic.
Individuals lacking work ethic will have a hard time finding meaning in their work. As jobseekers, they will have difficulty landing jobs and will probably find more than a few people to blame in the job hunt process. When they do find jobs, they will never add real value to the employer and, as a result, the employment relationship will be inevitably doomed. Whether or not a person shows up “for work” obviously matters – however, whether they show up “to work” is far more significant.
Work ethic does not translate into X number of hours you work for any employer but rather work ethic encompasses a combination of underlying values. These core values include: Accountability for One’s Own Actions; Integrity; Commitment to Organizational Objectives, Personal Leadership and Respect for Others. Being able to consistently embody these values with any employer gives one a strong work ethic which can withstand the shifting winds of labour market conditions. A strong work ethic is fundamental to nurturing an individual to be a contributing team member in any situation. It draws focus from “Me” to “Us” and allows the employee to focus on the larger picture of contributing to the organizational goals. A strong work ethic also facilitates an understanding that we are connected to one another through the work we do. We are more than self-serving individuals working for compensation benefits and prestige.
Providing real value to the employer
As staff at any organization, we are obligated to fulfill our responsibility to help our employers solve problems. For those in management, there is an added social and moral responsibility to make organizational decisions that can benefit society. In my opinion, work ethic is work ethic. We must not differentiate work ethic into “immigrant work ethic” because that risks stereotyping of immigrants and the perpetuation of precarious workplace situations if we only associate recent immigrants with work ethic. A strong work ethic must be nurtured at a young age. The role of caregivers, family members, educators, mentors and even peers during childhood is crucial. Later on, guidance counsellors, career counsellors and industry mentors can serve as facilitators but it is in the early years that the foundation for work ethic is established. There needs to be congruence between “work in theory” and “work in practice” and all stakeholders have a role to play. Potential strategies include:
• Parents and caregivers can nurture work ethic at a young age;
• Educators can nurture work ethic in school-age children through accountability and self-directed learning that is formally assessed at regular intervals;
• Mature staff at the workplace can impart a lessons on “maturity” and work ethic to new staff;
• Aside from formal supervision, employers can be mentors and allies in helping employees who are new or underachieving;
• Skills refresher sessions can be offered by employers to ensure all team members are adequately competent to carry out their responsibilities so the whole unit can function seamlessly;
• Individuals can take personal leadership in identifying continuous learning opportunities
We must not be so caught up in the hype of chasing new career opportunities or finding ways to acquire “in-demand” positions in the current economy. These are naturally important but we cannot lose sight of what is fundamental: the boundless promise of a strong work ethic. If as career practitioners we do our part and become active mentors, we can be optimistic that we are giving our future generation of workers the best defense against the ever-evolving labour market landscape.
Kah Hock (Danny) Koh first arrived in Canada as an international student from Singapore. He had worked with clients as an Employment Specialist at The Career Foundation in Toronto and currently holds a role as Job Developer at Wesley Urban Ministries in Hamilton, ON focusing on young adult jobseekers. Koh is a Certified Career & Résumé Strategist through Career Professional of Canada.
Bland, A. M., & Roberts-Pittman, B. J. (2014). Existential and Chaos Theory: “Calling” for Adaptability and Responsibility in Career Decision Making. Journal of Career Development, 41 (5), 382-401.
Taylor, B. (2011, February 1). Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/02/hire-for-attitude-train-for-sk
Toneguzzi, M. (2015, September 3). ‘A worrisome trend’ for Canada’s workforce as work ethic, quality of new hires deteriorate. Financial Post. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/executive/c-suite/a-worrisome-trend-for-canadas-workforce-as-work-ethic-quality-of-new-hires-deteriorate