Worth Ethic: Hiring and Maintaining a Team with a Drive for Excellence

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NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky once said “The highest compliment you can pay me is that I work hard every day.”  Ask anyone to describe the attributes of hard work and you will hear things like “does whatever it takes to get the job done,” “demonstrates a drive for excellence,” “pays attention to the little details,” “is keenly organized,” “proactively plans and thinks ahead,” and “is dedicated to doing their best.” The things that are being described are defining that nebulous concept of “work ethic.”

While we know fundamentally what work ethic means, and can easily recognize those that don’t exhibit these attributes, we are much less sure about how to hire people that can demonstrate it every day in their jobs. Most attempts are rooted in trying to infer work ethic from resumes or interviews. While someone’s past experiences and successes can exemplify work ethic to some degree, work ethic is ultimately about a person’s drive for excellence. Measuring that drive consistently across candidates, and keeping it alive post-hire, is a challenging yet essential objective for selecting and developing a team that can effectively advocate for your brand.

We know that work ethic and job performance are closely linked. Let’s say you hire a bright, technically-sound employee. Based on their previous experience, she appears to be the rock star you were waiting for. Once on the job, however, this person does just enough, her training time to get up to speed is a bit longer that you would have wished, and overall she is not exhibiting that level of professionalism that you thought you saw during the interview. She has the knowledge and skills, but not the drive for excellence. Not only have you just given yourself an opportunity to practice your performance management and coaching skills, you have just hired someone that will have a negative impact on your business results. You’ll probably tell yourself that you need to avoid this next time. The question is – how exactly do you do that? Because people are the most important differentiator to making your business successful, this is certainly an important question to answer – one that can be answered by building a structured, effective hiring process.

So how do you accurately measure work ethic? Do we learn work ethic early on or is it a habit we can learn at any time and hone it as needed?  Previous research on work ethic tells us that it is a personality trait and tends to stabilize at about age 25. It also tells us that it is affected by both a person’s natural drive and formative experiences. For example, Wayne Gretzky started playing hockey on a rink his parents made in the backyard when he was 6. His natural drive for excellence, combined with innate athletic ability, and the support of others helped cultivate his work ethic in the context of hockey. In addition, people with exceptional work ethic and drive to succeed also require an environment that fosters and rewards their achievements. A culture of recognition and achievement will help your company maximize everyone’s potential. Here are three ways top companies encourage work ethic, especially in new hires:

  • Give feedback. Even with an exceptional work ethic employees and new hires in particular, need coaching and direction. Daily check-ins and mentoring can provide consistent and direct feedback. A formal 30-60-90 day feedback system, where the immediate supervisor surveys the team and other supervisors, and then provide targeted feedback to the new hire after 30, 60, and 90 days of employment can encourage growth and accountability.
  • Provide challenge and growth. New hires with a strong work ethic are eager to take on challenging stretch assignments, and grow their skills over time. By providing consistent feedback and monitoring performance, you can provide new responsibilities and challenges at the right time – leading to greater performance, fit, and retention.
  • Set standards. Our co-founder, Tom DeCotiis, PhD., likes to use the phrase “sending eagles to turkey school.” A great way to limit the potential of those with a strong work ethic (i.e., your eagles) is to tolerate turkey-like performance. Failing to set high standards and consistently enforce them weakens your culture for performance and accountability.
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Corvirtus has taken the time to figure out not only how to measure work ethic, but also to create a tool to evaluate it in your employment candidates. Work ethic is comprised of essentially three things: a drive for excellence, organizational ability and proactivity. Our new measure of work ethic is related to greater functional performance, conscientiousness, work quality, and professionalism. Specifically, people who passed our assessment are:

  • 26 times more likely to be a better performer overall
  • 18 times more likely to exhibit greater urgency and to successfully complete tasks
  • 14 times more likely to exhibit a high level of professionalism
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Next Steps

Hiring for a strong work ethic is not a one-and-done solution. Once a team with a strong work ethic is in place they need clear direction, challenge, and standards. By hiring for work ethic and creating a culture of recognition and achievement, you can increase performance, fit with you culture, and retention.

To  learn more about culture, check out our whitepaper: “What is Organizational Culture?”

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