Dr. A.C. Ping on work ethic: “Find out what’s underneath the surface.”

August 29th, 2019, Recruitment

We get it.

Work ethic is a challenging trait to evaluate when you’re interviewing a candidate. It’s not as if there’s a section on the CV with the heading ‘summary of work ethic’.

Sure, you can ask questions about ‘going the extra mile’ or ‘completing a difficult task requiring more effort than usual’ but then what?

How many recruiters have interviewed a candidate, asked these questions, received the correct responses but find the candidate doesn’t cut it in the actual job?

Before we delve in, let’s talk ethics.

What is ethics?

The word ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, which means custom or character. In its simplest form, it’s a system of accepted rules about behaviour, based on what is considered right and wrong.

According to the internationally acclaimed author, Self Mastery teacher, philosopher and Business Ethics Professor Dr. A.C Ping, ethics is about “answering the question of ‘How ought we to live?’ or ‘What constitutes a good life?’ He added that this question is difficult, but can be answered in multiple ways. This includes asking three ‘feeder’ questions:

  1. What’s right? – in terms of values, principles and rules
  2. What’s good? – in terms of outcomes
  3. What’s fitting? – in terms of culture and context

A prime example is the legend of Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. “It was wrong to steal, but it was a good outcome and was fitting,” said Dr. Ping. The final result of this is painting a thief as a hero, so in a way, this example “demonstrates that it is the interaction between our intentions, actions and justifications that is key,” he added.

When we look at applying ethics to the world of work, the question turns to: ‘How ought we to work?’ Through this, we can consider what the right thing to do is in terms of:

  1. Workplace rules and values
  2. Outcomes such as goals, KPIs and other targets
  3. Workplace culture and behavioural norms

A person with a good work ethic is, therefore, someone who can balance their workplace rules, outcomes and culture in a justifiable way. That is, someone who abides by the values and principles of the organisation, achieves results and contributes to the culture in a positive way.

Dr. A.C Ping

The term ‘work ethic’ can be seen on various job ads and descriptions specifically highlighting that the candidate must possess or demonstrate a good work ethic. Why is this considered so important?

More so, what defines a good work ethic, and how can one identify and assess it correctly? Let’s dive in!

Work ethics 101

Different publications and industry professionals state that a candidate who possesses a strong work ethic wakes up early, respects others, completes all set tasks on time and never says no. Fundamentally, a strong work ethic could contain the following factors:

And that is just scraping the surface!

When we look at the different elements that represent a strong work ethic, we need to remember that when interviewing candidates who demonstrate this, they could become future employees. Not only could these future employees work autonomously, but exceed expectations by working hard, working smart and working to deliver exceptional results.

Cris Parker is the Head of The Ethics Alliance, a corporate membership program by The Ethics Centre. Cris says that work ethics is “intrinsic and reveals much about a person and how they would react in different situations.” She added that work ethics refers to “what one values in their work and also how one does their work.”

Work ethic is key in recruitment

Why does this matter? Couldn’t you still hire a candidate who looks good on paper and presented well in person? Sure, but things can go wrong. JobAdder’s Recruitment Manager Peter Ambrosetti points out that if you hire “based on short-term needs and immediate skill, you are setting yourself up for failure.”

Peter shared that his previous company estimated the cost of a bad hire to be $15k-$60k depending on the position. “This reason alone should have all recruiters focusing on making the right choice from a work culture standpoint. This doesn’t mean that every single person you bring on will be there for a few years, but it keeps the integrity of the company and team’s soul intact,” he said.

It’s important to understand that not all candidates possess the fundamental elements of a solid work ethic due to lack of experience. For example, you could be hiring graduates or interns who are still new to corporate work. Often, entry-level candidates don’t have much experience, so they may not be able to offer leadership or extensive knowledge when they walk through the door. Instead, perhaps they can offer a strong work ethic.

Peter is mindful when recruiting candidates who are applying for entry-level positions, and explains how he spots talent despite a lack of experience. “One of the first things I look at if someone has zero experience is any extra curricular activities they were involved in at school,” Peter explained. He asks his candidates questions such as:

  • Were you involved in student government?
  • Did you participate in any clubs or professional organisations?

If Peter comes across candidates who don’t have an extensive education timeline, then perhaps they have listed their part-time jobs and can elaborate on what they did whilst there. “Essentially I’m looking for accomplishments, large or small, but specifically ones they directly contributed to. It’s great to be part of a well-accomplished team, but I’m more interested in how they contributed to the wins,” he said.

An extra key point that Peter looks out for with general entry-level roles are cover letters. He knows that candidates can find it a struggle to write, but “they put candidates above the rest.”

The Workplace Ethics Advice blog explains that work ethics, ‘builds confidence that employees will do what it takes to complete assigned tasks in a timely manner.’ Furthermore, it illustrates the employee’s dedication and commitment to the company, organisational values, and highlights their determination to get things done. By having candidates with a strong work ethic it creates a work environment that holds dependability and accountability at its core.

Meanwhile Dr. A.C Ping notes that “work ethic is key” when viewed through the lens of recruitment. This is supported by research that has shown people becoming “overwhelmingly focused on results and justify why it’s okay to break or bend the rules,” he added. He suggested that these people can even be the office sociopath or narcissist and will get a ‘pass’ from their manager purely because they deliver results. However, in saying this, the long-term effect on the organisation in question is “very negative and destructive,” he added. Dr. Ping mentioned the Hayne Royal Commission as a prime example.

This approach is one that Cris also takes at The Ethics Centre, noting that a strong work ethic “is attractive to an employer.” She believes that employers prefer teams that can work productively together, be reliable and honest, but it’s as important to the individual. “Work ethic are those values that make work important to [the candidate] and gives them a purpose in their role,” she added.

When candidates have a strong work ethic it means they can work consistently, purposefully, systematically and in a focused way. You often hear of entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Michelle Obama and Apple CEO Tim Cook who wake up extremely early every morning, exercise, have a healthy breakfast, read a book, walk the dog, take the kids to school and then step into the office before anyone else – I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Now, this doesn’t mean you should ask your candidates what time they wake up; we can’t all be early risers.

In saying this, selecting applicants who have a work ethic that gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment, demonstrates how they could perform and succeed in the role. Their drive to complete tasks in the day helps recruiters pinpoint and shortlist candidates.

The work ethic changes

When we look at the occurring work ethic changes throughout the generations, Cris referenced several studies that debated whether work ethic generational differences actually exist. “According to a study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology this is where each generation stands,” she said. This study looks at the three generations of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials.

  • Baby Boomers: Are loyal to their employers, and view work as a meaningful part of life that leads to personal fulfilment. Baby Boomers have difficulty separating work from other parts of life. They believe in a hierarchical structure.
  • Generation X: Strive to work independently and autonomously from others. They aim for work/family balance, and are comfortable with a hierarchical structure.
  • Millennials: Value work/life balance, the flexibility that technology provides and working collaboratively. They value job security less than other generations, and more importantly, they want to know why decisions are made and will question the alignment of their values.

With this in mind, do recruiters need to take different approaches to interviewing candidates from different generations? Recruiters could be interviewing several generations for any one role, presenting an interesting challenge.

Dr. Ping concurs. He believes the generational changes we’re seeing revolve around our younger candidates, who have a desire to be involved in organisations that can create a psychologically safe workplace. In addition, they are also seeking the ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way. “They have a social license to operate, are environmentally responsible and treat their people with respect and care,” he explained.

Understanding work ethics in the workplace is important in being an effective and successful recruiter. This is achieved by grasping your candidates different work ethics and values; which will enable you to attract the best talent, reduce turnover and create a more positive work environment.

How to recognise great talent

Shortlisting and selecting suitable candidates can seem quite straightforward, especially when their resume and cover letter are up to date, and their interview was a success. When you’re diving deeper into work ethics suitability, the challenge is how do you know what a good work ethic looks like? And is being result-driven the most important thing?

When it comes to the changes we are currently experiencing in the workplace, one of the key points is “the desire to create environments that are psychologically safe, where everyone regardless of their gender, sexual preference or racial background feel free and safe to contribute,” said Dr. Ping.

When you have a candidate who is entirely focused on results and lacks the skills of “emotional and social intelligence,” he said, “it will undermine psychological safety. From a recruitment perspective, it is key to look beyond the surface and results and into the character of the individual.”

A further point to consider and be mindful of is ageism in the recruitment process. According to Harvard Business Review, in today’s workforce, for the first time in business, there are up to five generations at any one time. “Although generational differences have been explored and may provide a good starting point to better understand expectations, it’s best to avoid stereotyping,” Cris said.

Recruiters may stumble upon unconscious biases (such as ageism) and need to keep this in check. “The world is complex, and people’s situations vary – take the time to understand the wants and needs of each candidate,” Cris added.

When recruiters are in the interview stage with candidates a checklist may seem beneficial, but the key takeaway from Dr. Ping is to consider not just the results that candidates have achieved but also how they got these results and how they justify their actions.

For reference, Dr. Ping raises the question of “are they able to justify their actions on the basis of values and principles or do they use flawed justifications such as ‘everybody else is doing it’, ‘it’s just business’ or ‘I was just following orders’,” he explained. Recruiters should keep this in mind when entering the interview stage with candidates. The lead up to this point can be through behavioural interview questions, or more commonly known as the S.T.A.R format (Situation, Task, Action, Result).

Cris revealed that a candidate’s values and work ethic are exposed by the way they behave in different situations. “By presenting scenarios that prompt a behavioural response, rather than the recital of skills and experiences, recruiters can understand the values and work ethic held by candidates,” she explained.

An extra point that Dr. Ping brought across for recruiters, is to consider whether or not the candidate has taken time to clarify their own values and what they believe in. Or, perhaps they have taken the time to volunteer in their community?

Finally, Peter believes that work ethic can’t really be taught or learnt and shares an example of how a great work ethic can overpower a candidate’s years of experience. “I saw a great picture yesterday that said something along the lines of ‘hard work with mediocre talent always beats talent without hard work’ – a highly motivated team with great culture knows no boundaries and it all starts with a great recruiter putting the pieces together,” he said.

The signs of a poor work ethic

Identifying a candidate’s work ethic through their resume can be difficult, but once you enter the interview stage, spotting any red flags may feel tricky but can be done if approached effectively.

According to Dr. Ping here are three red flags to be aware of.

  1. Flawed justifications for actions;
  2. Not taking responsibility; and
  3. An overwhelming focus on results.

Cris highlights how recruiters should incorporate work relationship interview questions as the candidate’s behaviour may also affect co-workers. “Discussions about relationships in previous roles may reveal a negative work ethic,” she said.

Her three signs of a negative work ethic include a lack of:

  1. Productivity
  2. Respect for the job
  3. Time management

“These characteristics may be apparent in the way the candidate presents themselves at the interview,” said Cris.

There are certain interview questions you can ask your candidates that will help you further assess this aspect. Here are some suggestions.

  • Tell me about a time you did something because it needed to be done, even though it was not your responsibility.
  • Describe a time that you felt overwhelmed with your workload and how you handled it.
  • What are your short and long-term career goals?
  • Can you describe a time when you went the extra mile at work?
  • How do you define work ethic? What does it mean to you?

Questions like these will be able to help you properly assess a candidate’s abilities and commitment to the job. Studies have shown that past performance is an indicator of future success, and when making an important hire you need all the indicators you can get.

Peter advises to steer clear from questions such as, “where do you see yourself in x years/time.” He also encourages recruiters to “find out what drives and motivates them now. Ask them what some of their accomplishments are in both business and life; this should help peel back the curtain,” he said.

The expert’s advice on work ethic

You’ve now learnt what work ethics is, how to spot it, why it’s important, how it benefits organisations and the red flags to keep an eye on. But another important point to share is a final tip from the experts.

Dr. Ping encourages recruiters to “take the time to get to know the real person.” He mentions an organisation in the US that goes to the individual’s house and spend up to five hours just getting to know them – each to their own.

His final word of advice: “The key is to find out what’s underneath the surface – the foundations of character.”

Our Recruitment Manager encourages recruiters to get beyond the resume. “If you have 200+ applications for one role, hopefully you’re using JobAdder or similar software that has keyword-based AI to help you rank your CVs. While it’s certainly not foolproof, it should help you sift between the serial applicants and the serious ones,” he said. Furthermore, “if you’re able to sort by a cover letter (or even video cover letter), start there. Once you have your shortlist make sure you’re asking the right questions,” he added.

Lastly, Peter emphasises a focus on culture. “Our CEO at JobAdder Brett Iredale tells me all the time, we hire positive people first, everything else second. In short, make sure you’re hiring for the intangibles and not the things that can be learned,” he said.

Cris Parker reminds recruiters to “try to assess values and work ethics and align those with your organisation’s values. It’s best to get it right the first time, as the misplacement of someone is costly both financially and reputationally,” she added, ending with this:

“Ethics is at the centre of being human.”

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