That work yields moral benefit is a commonly-held belief in western societies. In the Bible, Adam was banished from Paradise to live by the “sweat of his brow”. Christian Humanism also recognizes work as an enhancer of character. In Japanese and Chinese cultures also work ethic is a strong element of earthly living just as it is much emphasized in the Protestant value system. In its practical aspect, ‘work ethic’ may include reliability, initiative and social skills.
Both in theory and practice, a worker who attests to a good work ethic deserves to be selected for better position, larger responsibility and higher promotion. Workers who do not measure up to prevailing norms of work ethic are considered lacking in capability to offer fair value for the wage the employer is paying them. Such workers, according to the employer, deserve no promotion and even a sack.
A central concept of free market economic theory of western capitalism is that “workers who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded (eventually)” and will move ahead. Those who do not work hard need to be dealt with a firm hand, given a warning to improve performance and, if they do not heed, there is no alternative but to dispense with their services. This principle is almost universally practiced but has not remained unchallenged.
The counter-cultures within the American society in the sixties, such as, the beatniks and hippies, boldly challenged these values. In the 19th century, the “Arts and Crafts” movement of William Morris in the UK and Elbert Hubbard in the US countered that “alienation” of workers from ownership of the tools of production and from products they produce destroys the work ethic. In the expanding industry and business of those times, the workers felt exploited and faced general hopelessness. They only did their minimum, just to survive and subsist on deplorable wages.
Marxists, and most sociologists, however, debunk “work ethic” on principle. They find “work ethic” as irrational in industry if the employee cannot hope to become more than a manager, as she/he remains a tool in the hands of owner whose decisions are final. For Sociologists, excessive concern with work ethic is a form of alienation from the truer need to connect with family and community. The twentieth century “critical theory” regards “work ethic” as a unilateral demand that has evolved from a gross confusion between Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” of company founders, and a sociological phenomenon, which in fact produces deviance from normal living in the form of addiction to work, and family neglect.
It has been pointed out that an excessive “work ethic” leads to drug addiction as is evident from the widespread use of crystal methedrine in American rural communities, which is attributed to excessive work schedules. It also causes sharp division between work and play, and neglect of recreation (time with family, volunteer work, or cultural pursuits), and turns a dedicated worker into a workaholic who leads an imbalance, if not abnormal, life.
Anyhow, a shift in values has been happening in the workplace. Some observers see a new ethical outlook developing regarding work and the workplace. They believe that new values are reshaping business and impelling companies to think up new ways of attracting and retaining right people in their service. How these companies view work and what they want from it is also changing. This new outlook may have resulted from the difficulties employers everywhere are facing to find sincere and loyal employees. Big and small companies are experiencing high rate of attrition, especially in South Asian countries, including India where salaries are going up and faster promotion and higher compensation are possible for employees by jumping from one company to another. This is the opposite of the “hire and fire” trends in the sixties and seventies.
Today’s workers look for meaning in the work they do. Some Western business concerns have found that their average worker is less interested in the bottom line and more interested in purpose and value. Daimler Chrysler AF of Stuttgart, a leading motor company, has joined with Mattel Inc. to help teach parents how to properly install child safety seats.
Business Companies are adopting volunteer service through the workplace as a strategy to connect employees with the larger community. Volunteer service or socially beneficial activity originating from workplace enhances the importance (value) of the workplace itself. According to an analyst, “in an increasingly “hi-tech” world there is a need for “hi-touch” experiences” for adding meaning to life. A worker feels elevated within his self whenever he hears: “What you do is noble”, and “You do make a difference.”
In western countries, societies are aging while in India younger generations are dominating the market place. Therefore, everything the western companies are doing to change work ethic cannot and does not apply to India. Even the notion of work ethic is somewhat alien to Indian workplace but, with the Globalization and so-called Reforms going apace, western methods are getting incorporated in the Indian system. It will be advisable, therefore, to keep track of what is happening in the West right now so that the western experience could be used for improving the Indian workplace.
Labour market is getting tight and new workers to replace the retiring ones are not easy to find. Employers have to offer personal growth and development opportunities as incentives to recruit and retain employees. Personal learning and growth have been identified as factors that attract western younger workers today. Volunteerism offers options for personal growth and development. Whether sharpening current skills or seeking to develop new ones, volunteerism offers a safe environment for learning, practicing and growing. The current company slogan is “Come grow with us!” and “Come see what’s in this for you!”
The worker has to feel a sense of partnership with the company he works for. Experts Izzo and Withers have identified “five traits of partnerships: communication from above rank, open book policy, performance-based pay, partnering leaders, vigilance and attention to symbolism.”
Workers, according to them, expect recognition based on performance. They want to feel like partners with all levels of paid staff. Employees value leaders who are “in it with them” and expect organisations to be vigilant in protecting their rights. It is not just a Red Cross pin, a Race for the Cure T-shirt, an association coffee mug, an organisational plaque or other outward symbols but a sincere appreciation of “noble work” done by them is what the workers value.
Employees no longer like to be machine-like cogs on the assembly line. Softball and bowling leagues are now official and employees/ workers now form friendships and connections on company time. So also, dress in offices has become casual; no longer the grey suit and blue shirt always. Workplace is also a fun place. Google offers extraordinary menu for lunch and dinner in its canteens. Other companies are also emulating Google within budgetary constraints and provide employee club-like facilities.
The workplace is being re-invented so that the worker feels that the employer cares and respects his/her personal life. Workers today do not like to be work-addicts or workaholics. They seek balanced living, spending quality time with family and friends. Yet, employees can and do burn out in today’s fast paced work environment. Intel, like several other companies, offers an eight-week sabbatical after seven years on the job.
Noble work, personal growth and development, partnerships, community, trust, balance and synergy are magic words while recruiting employees. The test, however, comes when these words have to be turned into everyday values within a company’s work ethic. Increasing dimension of employee attrition suggests that something is amiss within the company’s inner working. People get drawn to employing organisations but depart when they find that these organisations are not practicing the values they proclaimed when they advertised the vacancies.
Can we shape workers who have the sense that they serve the company and community? That remains a question!