HomeBusiness Ethics

Work ethic

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

The subject refuses to die!

Responding to those who perceive a correlation between business formal attire and a better work ethic, a correspondent points out that while the phrase “empty suit” is well-understood, thus far the phrase “empty t-shirt” has not entered the business lexicon.

Don’t worry. This column isn’t about dress codes. That horse is dead, and has just about stopped twitching.

It’s about work ethic. And whether how hard an employee works is a matter of ethics at all.

It’s tempting to make this a very short column. The answer is, no. With respect to the employee/employer relationship, at least, there is no connection whatever between how hard you work and any ethical consideration of any kind.


Why would there be?

There could have been, and at one time there might have been. Once upon a time, employers acknowledged ethical obligations toward their employees, such as only terminating them for cause, or when financial circumstances became so dire that the only realistic alternative was bankruptcy. When employers viewed this as an ethical obligation, it was plausible to argue for an ethical quid pro quo — that employees should consider working hard on their employers’ behalf to be an ethical obligation as well.

That stopped being the case in 1997, when the Business Roundtable, the official voice of business (and a powerful lobbyist) redrew the lines. Business leaders previously recognized the obligation to balance the needs of customers, employees, the community and shareholders. That has stopped. According to the Business Roundtable, business leaders now have only one obligation: To maximize shareholder value.

Taken literally, this means compliance with laws and regulations isn’t an obligation, and it’s clear that many businesses simply figure the cost of fines into their return-on-investment calculations. And even among businesses that do consider the law to be an absolute boundary, it’s a less onerous burden when you get to write the text of the law, as is often the case these days.

Employers recognize no obligation to employees beyond the boundaries of the laws they often get to write or at least strongly influence. And sometimes even those are ignored — note the large number of recent class action lawsuits related to compulsory “off the clock” and unpaid overtime work. (Before anyone writes about these indicating a need for tort reform: Juries, after hearing the actual evidence, are finding the companies guilty, which just might indicate that they really are guilty and really do owe the plaintiffs money.)

If employers acknowledge no ethical obligation to employees, only what is required by enforced laws and whatever is in the policy manual, why should employees acknowledge an ethical obligation to work hard?

There is no reason. “Work ethic” is simply a well-chosen phrase, an example of using vocabulary to slip an idea past mental barriers that otherwise would discard it as worthless.

If an employer tried to persuade its employees that working hard is an ethical rather than contractual obligation, employees would evaluate the logic of the proposition. By instead packaging the same proposition as vocabulary, employees let it slide on by, perhaps because we’ve all been taught that arguing about word choice is semantic nitpicking (my partner claims this attitude has given rise to rabid antisemanticism).

And since work ethic has become part of our vocabulary, we’ve all — employees and managers alike — unconsciously accepted the notion that working hard is an ethical obligation when there’s no logic at all to support this notion.

There is simply an implied contract between employer and employee. It says employees who work harder and smarter for longer hours receive bigger bonuses and raises, and perhaps promotions as well.

To the extent employers live up to their side of the bargain, hard work is a matter of enlightened self interest. To the extent employers don’t live up to their side of the bargain, promoting empty suits and paying excessive executive salaries while requiring unpaid overtime, employees who work as hard as they can are being suckered.

As an IT leader, you’re supposed to create a high-performance organization. Part of doing so is motivating employees to work hard, work smart, and when necessary work long hours as well. To do so you have two choices.

You can bandy about the phrase “work ethic” and hope they fall for the ruse. Or, you can reward hard smart work and live up to your side of the bargain.