According to Webster’s Dictionary, work ethic is defined as “a system of values in which central importance is ascribed to work, or purposeful activity, and to qualities of character believed to be promoted by work.” It could be said that a person who possesses a strong work ethic perceives work to be very important to his or her life and personal satisfaction. In a new world of work, exactly what value does work ethic have — and what does it mean in a time when many work from home, work flexible hours or work for themselves?

Karen Dwyer

Karen Dwyer

To answer the first question, a recent poll on the Express Career Blog, Movin’ On Up, asked employers and job seekers what they thought was the most important soft skill. Essentially, soft skills are personal qualities, habits and attitudes that make someone a good employee.

Out of 1,210 respondents, 23 percent selected “strong work ethic” as the most important soft skill employers are looking for out of a list of 11 attributes, followed by a positive attitude (17 percent), communication (11 percent) and being a team player (10 percent).

To understand the term “work ethic” in today’s world, you must first ask yourself: What does having a strong work ethic mean to you?

Depending on your generation, how you define a strong work ethic may vary. Mature workers, such as traditionalists and baby boomers, typically value face time and dedication. For those generations, long hours at the office and loyalty to the company marked by years of service are deeply intertwined with their personal identity and career achievements. Those generations lived through world wars, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement. They were taught from an early age that a strong work ethic meant working overtime and being faithful to your employer.

Employers, in turn, rewarded that work ethic with monetary, positional and provisional rewards for many years. But today’s workplace reality paints a much different picture of loyalty. Layoffs, slashed benefits and a struggling economy mean the rewards of loyalty don’t always pay off as they did years ago.

Younger generations, such as Gen Xers and Millennials, have a much different understanding of a strong work ethic. They are extremely hard workers, but their first loyalty is to their own dreams and careers. They define a strong work ethic by how well they do their jobs, how quickly they complete an assignment and how satisfying their work is to them personally. Growing up in an era of video games, cell phones and personal computers, these generations are fully aware that it doesn’t take the time it once did to complete many tasks. Also, they value a flexible schedule and believe that most work doesn’t have to be done in the traditional workplace or during the traditional 9-to-5 work day.

A hard work ethic for this group of workers often will be demonstrated in industry involvement outside the office as young workers collaborate with professionals in social networks, contribute to community projects and put their team-oriented approach to work in different places, too. These workers are defined by who they are outside of work and struggle with the rigid confines many employers place on them.

With the different perspectives on the meaning of a strong work ethic, it’s important not to group everyone into one category when determining who has a strong work ethic and who doesn’t at work. You can no longer define work ethic simply as time spent in the office; you must look at the total picture of the employee’s professional life. Time, people and advances in technology continue to evolve the meaning of “work” and also of “work ethic.”

Soft skills such as a strong work ethic are important when determining who to hire, promote and give increases in salaries. Take everything an employee does for the company as well as in his or her professional life outside of work when looking at one’s work ethic. Doing so will help you make informed decisions during interviews and performance evaluations, and ensure you have the right people on your team.

— Karen Dwyer is owner of Express Employment Professionals, 9 W. Figueroa St. Click here to contact her or call 805.965.6900.