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Is America’s Work Ethic Dead?

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A portion of my work history included personnel manager/management trainer for a ten-store retail chain in San Diego. Interviewing hundreds of potential employees, and working with many management trainees, I found I had to come to grips with a very important fact. Most of them were not going to have my dedication or work ethic.

For most, this was their first job. They were latchkey kids, raised on TV by loving parents who thought they were raising responsible kids, who were actually spoiled brats away from the loving gaze of mom and dad. In fact most had no work ethic at all.

Just making change was a mathematical impossibility for many without a calculator or cash register doing the work. It was always refreshing to get that one diamond in the rough that you just knew was going to be a success in life. But unfortunately they were few and far between.

“Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.” – David Bly, American politician (1952- )

Growing up in the family business in Illinois I got to witness the work ethic of my mother and father up close and personal. Unlike most kids whose parents went off to work someplace they never saw, my folks walked across the driveway and into our business.

My parents owned a floral and landscaping business and a small farm, all on the same property. We grew almost all of our own flowers, plants, trees and shrubs. My father even carved out a section of our farm for one of the few baseball diamonds in town. Little league baseball had come to small town USA and he built his own version of “Field of Dreams,” long before the movie of the same name. And yes, corn surrounded it, or soybeans each spring, but sadly no lights, ghosts or paying customers.  Just neighborhood kids that loved to play baseball.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” – Stephen King, American novelist (1947- )

The other tough lesson was discovering that I had to teach “manners” and common courtesy to employees. “Yes, Ma’am” and “Yes, Sir,” not “Yeah” or “OK.” My parents taught me the importance of good customer service. Being “kind and courteous” at all times, and even more so, if the customer was having a tough day.  Complaints could usually be resolved; poor service couldn’t.

In addition, few employees realized that their poor attitude not only reflected poorly on the business, but also on them personally. Even the best employees often needed a “refresher course” in positive work ethics.

“The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I work hard every day.” – Wayne Gretzky, Canadian ice hockey player (1961- )

I never left home in the morning without a couple of employment applications in my pocket. Every so often I would come across someone in my travels that really “got it.” They understood the sales, marketing, and customer service process. I was like a baseball scout always looking to improve the team. Finding that next superstar for the other employees to emulate. And I had no qualms about stealing them from another business.

“A bad hair day is not a valid excuse for calling in sick.” ― Tadahiko Nagao

I guess I was lucky. I didn’t have to supervise people who had access to 500 channels, video games, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. I’m not even sure today’s employee could even find time to work keeping up with all the electronic competition. However, it seems that whenever the pendulum swings too far in one direction someone always finds a way to swing it back. So maybe we are on our way back to a more positive work ethic in this country. Got some shopping to do today — hope I have correct change.

What’s your opinion? How can we restore America’s work ethic?

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