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7 Characteristics of a Good Work Ethic

Employees with a great work ethic are worth their weight in gold.

2020 was up there with the greatest crises in HR history. Amidst the challenges, though, there’s been something positive—we learned a lot about the drive and resilience of our employees. The ones who kept produced great work rather than excuses, no matter the challenges they faced—and even when their organizations moved remote-first.

We often talk about hiring “top talent”, but have you ever considered that it’s the people who show up every day and reliably get things done that are the real drivers of business success? That’s why we thought it was worth taking just a moment to celebrate and give a little definition to a humble and often overlooked quality: work ethic.

  1. Punctuality
    Whoever said “90% of success is showing up,” had a point. Employee tardiness takes a toll on productivity; it costs the U.S. economy billions annually, according to SHRM. But consistent lateness also signals a lack of commitment, which can be a killer for workplace morale. Even among the chronically late, though, tardiness doesn’t always mean laziness—some people just perceive time differently, according to research from San Diego State University. (To make life easier for everyone, it’s good HR practice to set out a timekeeping policy outlining your expectations of employees, while enabling punctuality with thoughtful scheduling and regular shift reminders.)
  2. Focus
    It’s never been harder to find your focus than this year. Given that it can take over 20 minutes to regain your full attention after responding to just one email, according to a UC Irvine study, a focused mindset is an essential part of a good work ethic. Hiring (and rewarding) highly focused employees isn’t enough though—managers must also put in place structures that facilitate focused work. This could mean refraining from unnecessary communication while an employee is completing a task or offering easily-distracted staff the opportunity to work from home.
  3. Dedication
    Focus for one day and you’re on the right track. Keep that focus up over the course of weeks or months and you’re really onto something. The people who can perform day in and day out, who have a habit of success, are your real super stars. The problem is, self-discipline and resilience in the face of obstacles only goes so far. The magic ingredient is engagement. When employees are engaged by their work—and that usually means when they feel a sense of ownership and control over what they do—there’s no stopping them.
  4. Professionalism
    Professionalism isn’t about taking yourself seriously—it’s about taking the work seriously. Think of the people on your team who follow through on promises, own up to mistakes and have a way of staying positive in the face of adversity. A professional does their job to the best of their ability, expects the same of their colleagues, and effortlessly raises everyone’s standards.
  5. A Desire to Improve
    Stagnation is not a pleasant feeling—in life or your career. The best employees will prevent this by seeking to always improve themselves. If this desire isn’t noticeable at the interview stage, hiring managers should stay well clear. No matter how accomplished an employee seems, without a desire to improve, sooner or later they’ll be left behind.

    Finding employees with a growth mindset is not enough, though—managers must encourage it and, more importantly, facilitate their employees’ learning processes. Utilizing learning management software can help companies easily keep track of this process. Otherwise, with career and personal development missing from part of your employee experience, you’ll struggle to hire—and keep—the best talent available.

  6. Initiative
    While an important part of management is laying out clear expectations, employees must also be able to act on their own initiative. The ability to act independently is a crucial element of having a good work ethic—no matter how talented someone is, if they need to be micro-managed, they’ll hold your team back. Recognizing self-starters and independent thinkers is an important task for any hiring manager. That means learning to distinguish between those with initiative and candidates who just won’t listen, and always think they know best.
  7. Productivity
    Results are the name of the game. At the end of the day, possessing all talent and potential in the world means nothing if you aren’t able to produce anything to show for it. Preference should always be given to candidates who have a record of actually producing quality work—and hiring managers must fight the urge to believe the big words of those with more talent but less to show for it. Candidates with a good work ethic find a way to get the job done, no matter the challenge, no matter how they are feeling that day. (As ever, though, raising employee engagement doesn’t hurt—in fact it can raise employee productivity by 21%, according to Gallup).

Bottom Line

If all the good work ethic characteristics align in one candidate, a hiring manager can be confident that they will find a way to succeed—no matter their talent level. Yet even with a good work ethic traits, staff need to be engaged and encourage. It’s the job of HR to not only seek but to facilitate and nurture these traits. With the right people, along with the right setup and support—hard work can come easy.


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