The Work Ethic and U.S. Unemployment

That millions of Americans, but especially young African-American males, are unemployed is obvious.  Predictably, solutions number in the dozens and come from every point on the political spectrum, but unmentioned in today's nostrums is U.S. workforce quality.  Quality does not mean technical skills acquired in college classrooms or what is learned on the job.  It refers to basic dispositions required for every job, from ditch-digger to neurosurgeon -- even for sports, --and summarized by the term "work ethic."  Absent these, all the billions in educational spending or tax cuts are pointless.  Here's the discouraging point: in today's social climate, imparting a solid work ethic in those who lack it is exceedingly difficult -- and in some cases, impossible.

There is no precise formal definition of "work ethic," but it certainly includes the following traits (omitted are obvious ones like honesty and not doing drugs).

  • Punctuality - arriving promptly and otherwise being there when needed.
  • Reliability - performing one's job, rain or shine, even when tempted to be elsewhere.
  • Diligence - tenaciously sticking to it and avoiding the lures of wasteful socializing or daydreaming.
  • Agreeableness - getting along with fellow employees or customers regardless of personal feelings.
  • Abiding by the rules - whether about personal appearances or performing tasks properly, all rules are to be obeyed.
  • Ambition - a willingness to improve performance, acquire new skills, and try to be a better employee as a matter of principle even if not immediately rewarded.

Anybody who has ever held a job knows what happens when fellow workers lack this work ethic.  One just wastes time waiting around for the chronically late or filling in for no-shows.  Meanwhile, tasks are performed sloppily, often redone by others, and all the while even more time is wasted settling unnecessary petty quarrels.  Even after years on the job, troubled employees are no better than the first day they arrived.  Today's retail environment offers endless examples of sloppily dressed employees on cell phones who seem annoyed when you bother them with a legitimate question they cannot answer.

Valuable as it may be, imposing a work ethic -- let alone teaching it -- can be a legal nightmare, and this may explain why today's public discussion of job-creation avoids it altogether.  First, while nearly every employer understands its importance, it lacks a precise legalistic definition and is never part of a formal job description.  It is just assumed that those hired should possess it, and applications and interviews rarely even bring it up.  At most, employers use proxies -- for example, honorable military service or a degree from a no-nonsense college.  In the past, these essential traits could be confirmed by letters of recommendation, but in today's PC legal climate, no employer would risk writing down that his ex-employee spent hours on his cell phone playing games.

Second, how do you deal with an employee who violates unwritten rules?  How is a boss to deal with a foul-mouthed employee when there is no specific policy on workplace language?  Yes, everybody can recognize the problem, but what if the terminated employee files a discrimination lawsuit claiming that (a) he was never officially informed about the murky unwritten job requirements, and (b) other employees are equally guilty and he is just being discriminated against because he is old, black, homosexual, disabled, foreign-born, a Muslim, or some other trait covered by anti-discrimination laws?

Formalizing the work ethic is exceedingly daunting, and this task is certainly beyond what most businesses can accomplish.  The legal costs of monitoring infractions (and the appeals process) would be prohibitive.  The plaintiff's government-paid lawyer might well insist that fuzzy qualifications like "speaking clearly" or "being polite" are code words for race and ethnicity and thus inherently illegal.

Consider, for instance, developing an official policy banning "foul language."  The words and expressions must be specified (including non-English ones), permissible level would be listed (perhaps so many obscenities per day or a point system depending on offensiveness), and then records must be kept of all cursing, swearing, and vulgarities for all employees so as to justify a termination for "too much" bad language.  Similar rules must then be formulated for each required work ethic trait and perhaps adjusted for specific tasks (for example, sales jobs may require higher grooming and language standards).

These already excessive burdens must then be fine-tuned according to each employee's distinctive culture or, in some instances, their specific disabilities (e.g., a person with a speech defect or thick accent that makes him generally unintelligible might demand a reasonable accommodation to keep his job, even if customers complain).  The EEOC already imposes the force of federal law on workplace requirements having a disparate (negative) impact on certain "protected" minorities (the rules are endless and complex; see here).  So if a company's punctuality policy is so strict that workers with a culture that tolerates lateness are disproportionally guilty of infractions, the EEOC might demand proof that zero tolerance is absolutely job-required and therefore not aimed at hindering those with dissimilar cultural norms.  Imagine a firm trying to explain to a judge why promptness -- not being late by 15 minutes -- is vital to company success!  And that all employees other than the singly chronically tardy person always satisfy this tough standard!

For the most part, a strong work ethic is family-based and reinforced by early schooling and, as such, is largely impervious to today's rush to reduce unemployment.  Long before joining the workforce, a youngster must learn that 9:00AM means 9:00AM, not 9:30AM; that doing a homework assignment means completing it all; that curse words are always inappropriate; and on and on.  This typically requires years of strong parenting whose outcome exists largely as unthinking habits, not obedience to formal rules.

Ironically, today's push to use colleges to improve workforce quality may undermine solid work habits.  Pressured to "make the graduation numbers" or at least maximize tuition, schools relax standards and thereby inadvertently promote indolence.  Every college teacher knows the drill: don't require attendance, tolerate chronic classroom lateness and early departures (and texting during lectures), never challenge any excuse, minimize difficult assignments, offer multiple extensions for already late papers, or just permit retakes of failed tests.  If students still come up short, inflate grades so everyone gets at least a "B."  And the more people pushed into college and given easy diplomas, the greater the indolence.

Imagine when this "graduate" gets a job so "as to make the U.S. a world economic power in the 21st century."  The shock might be toxic.  Unlike the good old college days, he has to show up exactly on time every day, be at meetings before they begin, pay attention (no iPhone solitaire!), do the assignments correctly with no second chances, and daily be scrutinized by bosses nervous about Chinese competitors.

Sadly, this work ethic problem is almost unspeakable in public.  I ran a business for thirteen years, and over beers this topic was ubiquitous among fellow merchants -- everyone agreed that "getting good help" was a formidable problem, and one not solvable just by paying more.  An occasional newspaper story recounts some business unable to fill open positions, but the problem is always framed in polite terms -- lack of technical skills (for example, see here).  But nobody will bell the cat.  Finding employees who will do the job and then some, youngsters who eventually resemble the workers who made American the world's foremost industrial power, remains a serious problem. 

Future prospects look dim.  The social engineering necessary to impart a strong work ethic is, obviously, pie in the sky.  Nor do many of today's slothful workers want to be socially engineered into habits that they may find painful.  The results are, alas, predictable.  Firms faced with a lackluster workforce may automate (machines are notoriously punctual), hire more motivated and accommodating recent immigrants, or, as often the case, just move the job offshore to countries known for dutiful workers.