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Workhorse or Slacker: How to Assess Jobseekers' Work Ethic

Dan Sines

CEO at Traitify | Star Wars & Superhero Fan, Adventurer, aspiring Renaissance Man | Inventor/Visionary in Work

Imagine you have a choice between hiring two job candidates. Each is equally qualified, but one has a stronger work ethic than the other. All other things being equal, you will almost certainly hire the harder worker, right?

That's an easy one.

Of course, it's rarely that clear-cut. After all, job seekers don't come equipped with helpful meters displaying how much work ethic they have. And previous employers are increasingly unlikely to prove helpful, opting (out of fear of litigation) to share with you only the most banal facts about their former staff members, such as dates of employment.

Yet it is possible for savvy employers to arrive at a more informed and dependable assessment of an applicant's work ethic, and therefore significantly improve the likelihood of hiring a good match for the company, regardless of the organization's industry sector, size, or culture.

But to get there, it is essential to first understand the traits and values that contribute to this desirable attribute.

So what should you be looking for?

Theorists have made the case that the human work ethic is made up of seven parts, or dimensions, based on the ideas of Max Weber, one of the first and foremost experts on this topic. The seven dimensions (with definitions that are commonly used in academic literature) are:

  • Self-Reliance: "Striving for independence in one's daily work."
  • Morality/Ethics:"Believing in a just and moral existence."
  • Leisure: "Pro-leisure attitudes; belief in the importance of non-work activities."
  • Hard Work: "Belief in the virtues of hard work."
  • Centrality of Work: "Belief in the work for work's sake and the importance of work."
  • Wasted Time: "Attitudes and beliefs reflecting active and productive use of time."
  • Delay of Gratification: "Orientation toward the future; the postponement of rewards."

You don't have to be a social scientist to recognize the value in this list. Jobseekers who believe in the importance of hard work, view it as central to their lives, and do all that they can to maximize their productivity are the very personification of work ethic.

But to determine who genuinely and authentically has these types of strong commitments, we need to go a step further. Assuming you can detect these qualities based on gut instinct or with clever interview questions could easily lead to missteps.

For example, many people believe that extroverted candidates generally have better work ethic than introverted alternatives due to their more outgoing personalities. But that's not necessarily true. Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, three of the most industrious people in American history, all rank as introverts, according to Susan Cain, the author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking."

The Qualities of Hard Workers

Let's dig deeper to understand the fundamental building blocks of work ethic. Some of the qualities commonly associated with it are:

  • Reliability and dedication
  • Initiative and drive to go above and beyond
  • Persistence and perseverance
  • Integrity and character
  • Ambition (ideally tempered by humility)
  • Conscientiousness

By breaking down the concept of work ethic to these basic elements, we better understand what exactly we're looking for. That is an essential start point. More importantly, we can grade out candidates on these measurable and discreet attributes and formulate a more informed picture of who an applicant truly is - and is not.

This is how we can retire the old and unreliable gut test in favor of dependable assessments that measure where individuals rank in these identified categories. A high-quality personality test can, for instance, produce useful insight about qualities such as reliability and persistence.

Two more quick points about personality and work ethic.

First, give some thought to what shapes your image of work ethic. If the picture that comes to mind is of someone logging lots of hours behind a desk, ask yourself: Does that fit with the current reality of my company? The person who spends the most amount of time onsite isn't necessarily the hardest worker on staff - although he or she might be, of course, depending on the nature of your business. (This is particularly true as technological advances make remote labor increasingly commonplace. Unfortunately, at many firms, time online is replacing time onsite as the yardstick for measuring work ethic. This measure is just as problematic, and for the same reasons.)

Second, while we tend think of work ethic exclusively as an inherent quality, there is also something to be said about the influence of the work environment. We humans generally like to do what suits our personalities, and we also like to enjoy success. The type of workplace you maintain can play a role. Think about it: Have you ever found yourself driven to work hard in one situation, while finding it difficult to stay on task in others? A match between an employee's personality and the employer's culture can create a virtuous cycle of job satisfaction, performance, productivity, and profit.

For more about how to use personality testing to make a deep impact on the quality of your workplace outcomes, check out our new guide, 10 Ways to Build Great Teams Using Personality Data. Or just reach out to set up a live demo of our personality testing solution.

Whatever you do, do all you can to recruit and retain good matches for you company. HR successes and misfires fall right to the bottom-line.

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