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Is a “Good Work Ethic” Different for Millennials, Gen X’ers and Boomers?

Recently, I was asked to conduct some training for a national telecom company regarding conflicts arising from generational differences within one of their regional centers.  As we explored together the challenges they were facing, two issues became clear.

First, not all differences cited as “generational” are actually based in the generation of the employees.  In actuality, many of the issues are common challenges in workplace relationships (lack of trust, feeling treated disrespectfully, poor communication) but they have some generational veneer that makes them look differently.  For example, what is perceived as “disrespectful” often differs across generations.  Millennials often feel disrespected when they are not asked for their input, while older employees may not feel treated respectfully if their opinion (with all of the years of experience behind it) is given the same weight (or less) than the advice given by the “new kid on the block”.

Additionally, some “generational” characteristics are actually life-stage characteristics rather than directly resulting from one’s generation.  For example, a 25 year old single male living in an apartment with other single guys will typically have different values and behaviors than a 25 year old male who is married and has a young child.  Their life focus and resulting choices are due more to their stage of life than the fact that they are a Millennial. 

The second major issue that became evident was the concern about younger employees being described as not having a “good work ethic”.    This led to an exploration of what a “good work ethic” really is (the term is used frequently without actually defining it.)  Here is a list of some of the characteristics we  have identified:

  • Showing up (regularly).
  • Showing up on time.
  • Listening to and following instructions.
  • Willingness to learn.
  • Performing quality work (vs. “going through the motions”).
  • Completing work in a timely fashion.
  • Is a “hard worker”.

Note: Being a “hard worker” is a term used frequently by Boomers, and needs to be defined itself.  We found that hard worker is seen as one who:

  1. stays on task; doesn’t need close supervision to do so.
  2. puts forth consistent, good effort; not taking excessive breaks.
  3. continues to work hard even when they are tired or not supervised.

So, the question becomes: Do the characteristics of a good work ethic differ across Generations?  That is, is a good work ethic defined differently by one’s context?

From the research we’ve done, the answers are “No” and “Maybe”.

I believe that the ultimate reality test of a “good work ethic” is defined by one’s customers and clients. What do they need and desire?  Someone to be available when they need help.  Someone who will do the job correctly (and in the way promised), etc.

Employers then reflect to their employees what the clients want by setting up rules and policies to meet those needs.  So, generally, it appears that a “good work ethic” consists of many of the same behaviors regardless of what generation an employee comes from.

A caveat exists, however.  Being available to answer a client’s questions can look differently according to the expectations of the client – which are often framed by the client’s Generation.  For a Millenial client, getting answers via a text message, an email, or through a chat room may actually be the preferred means of communication (and it is okay that the communication occurs between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.)  In contrast, an older Gen X’er may want to schedule a call or videoconference.  Is one “better” than the other?  Yes – the one the client wants.

Two questions remain (to be addressed another time):

  1. Do younger employees (as a group) actually have a less well developed work ethic than other team members?
  2. How does a “good work ethic” develop?

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker and consultant helping “make work relationships work”.  Dr. White is co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, and Sync or Swim (a fable about working together successfully in teams). 

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