July 12, 2010

What is Work Ethic?

I’ve been thinking about work ethic lately and what it means to different people. When I lead workshops on combating age bias, middle-aged workers almost invariably raise the subject of work ethic.

As in: We have it and younger workers don’t.

And yet, I sometimes hear young managers complain about duffers who sit around waiting for retirement. They tell me, These short-timers aren’t willing to put in the extra effort to get ahead because, frankly, they don’t care about getting ahead.

I’ve even heard work ethic described as a factor of geography. I once served a group of workers laid off from a tool manufacturer in Minnesota. Given the opportunity to work in the sister plant in the south, only one manager accepted. He returned a few weeks later, shaking his head. "I can’t manage those southerners," he said. "They have no work ethic."

Most people, when pressed, will tell me that work ethic means qualities such as reliability and going the extra mile. A person with a good work ethic will come in early or work through lunch, while someone just putting in their time will watch the clock like a hawk.

Last week I carried those thoughts into a movie theater with me, where what I saw on the screen blew away any earlier standards I might have had about what it means to work hard or go the extra mile.

You may have heard about the movie, which was titled "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." This documentary has gotten most of its attention for the way the filmmakers captured the comedian’s rise to stardom and her well-publicized tiff with the late Johnny Carson. A lot of attention has also been paid to her plastic surgeries, which are always good for gossip.

But relatively little has been said about this one amazing fact: Joan Rivers works her tail end off. She keeps floor-to-ceiling files documenting every joke she has ever used. At 77, she plays every gig she can get, even if it means getting up at 3 a.m. to get on the plane, and she still tests new material every month at seedy New York nightclubs. She simply does not stop working, although she certainly could afford to.

Is she virtuous? Driven? Imbalanced? Your answer depends on your values, but this I know: She’s raised the bar for me when I think about work ethic.

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