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The Work Ethic



[Excerpt] In everyday usage of the term 'Work Ethic' is almost indistinguishable from work satisfaction or simply attitudes to work. Do people value work or not, or are they in various degrees indifferent to it? Since most adults are expected to work and most do in order to make a living, the work ethic in this popular use of the term is, on average, positive for most people. Nevertheless there are bound to be variations in this average and in the distribution around the average for different groups of people.
Cornell University ILR School
CAHRS Working Paper Series Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies
The Work Ethic
Frank Heller
Tavistock Institute, London
S. Antonio Ruiz-Quintanilla
Cornell University
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The Work Ethic
Frank Heller
S. Antonio Ruiz Quintanilla
Working Paper 9 5 - 0 8
CAHRS / Cornell University
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Advancing the World of Work
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
Page 1
The Work Ethic
Frank Heller
Tavistock Institute London
S. Antonio Ruiz Quintanilla
Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies
Cornell University
Working Paper # 95-08
Chapter prepared for Malcolm Warner (ed.). International Encyclopaedia of Business and
Management, - London: Routledge, forthcoming
This paper has not undergone formal review or approval of the faculty of the ILR School. It is
intended to make results of Center research, conferences, and projects available to others
interested in human resource management in preliminary form to encourage discussion and
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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International Encyclopaedia of Business and Management - Routledge
Frank Heller, Tavistock Institute, London
S. Antonio Ruiz-Quintanilla, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Those of us who study work are unsurprisingly convinced of its importance while ... (for) those
who merely do it, it may have less cosmic significance.- Albert Cherns
Some introductory thoughts
In everyday usage of the term 'Work Ethic' is almost indistinguishable from work
satisfaction or simply attitudes to work. Do people value work or not, or are they in various
degrees indifferent to it? Since most adults are expected to work and most do in order to make
a living, the work ethic in this popular use of the term is, on average, positive for most people.
Nevertheless there are bound to be variations in this average and in the distribution around the
average for different groups of people.
Social scientists tend to define the term with greater precision and want to compare and
contrast the emphasis people tend to give to working with their valuation or preference for other
activities in their lives, most obviously leisure, but also religion, community, the family, hobbies,
and so on. In such an approach, human activities are seen to offer choices. Working may still be
very central, but at the margin, people will have other preferences and the margin may be
different for a variety of reasons that are interesting to explore.
Another approach is to differentiate attitudes that regard work as an obligation -something
they owe society - or an entitlement - something society owes them.
Probably the most influential writing on the work ethic comes from the sociologist Max
Weber (1930). In trying to explain why people pursue wealth and material gain for its own sake,
not because of necessity, Weber found the answer partly in Puritan asceticism and the concept
of 'calling'. Puritans sought to achieve salvation through economic activity. Weber believed the
introduction of capitalism as a mass phenomenon was facilitated by factors like urbanization,
the development of cooperatives and guilds, the development of a legal system, bureaucratic
nation state, and the development of a moral system, which he called 'the Protestant Ethic'. The
core notion of the Protestant Ethic being the idea of calling and Puritan asceticism. The notion
of calling requires individuals to fulfill their duty in this world and interpret occupational success
as a sign of being elected, and the notion of Puritan asceticism adds the positive evaluation of
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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hard, continuous, bodily or mental labour, and a negative view of idleness, luxury, and time
wasting. The term Protestant ethic is still used to describe a positive attitude to hard work,
possibly, unconsciously as a way of indicating an explanation of social approval. As we shall
see, modern research casts doubt on the Protestant connection in the 20' century, though it
appears to have had such an influence in the past.
Another related concept that has become very popular among managers and
organization psychologist is work commitment or attachment to work. The assumption here, as
well as with the work ethic is that people who demonstrate high values on these characteristics
are somehow more effective or productive and consequently more valuable as employees and
managers. Such a causal relationship is more often assumed than tested. Causality, as we shall
see, is more likely to run in the other direction. People having high levels of education and skill
and occupying jobs with a fair measure of autonomy are very likely to hold high work ethic
values. People with lower skills, education, and control over their work tend to espouse low work
ethic values (MOW, 1987, 261-3).
Research has discovered a relationship between the work ethic and social policy values
like lack of sympathy for the unemployed, who are regarded as lazy and therefore responsible
for their own predicament (Furnham,1987). People who hold these values believe that
economic, social and other outside environmental conditions should not be considered to be
causal agents or excuses for social deprivation, poverty and related misfortunes. There is
clearly an association between these private beliefs and political values, but the rapid and
substantial rise in unemployment in the last decades of the 20' century parallel with
unprecedented changes in technology and several severe economic depressions has made
these views less plausible.
Extensive tests to measure the work ethic have been developed and have shown
association with achievement, motivation, ambition, and other personality factors and attitudes
like economic, political, and social conservatism and self control1 and self-reliance.
For all those who are not unemployed or retired, work takes up a major slice of the
week; this is true even when work is unpaid, as for large numbers of women. Work is therefore
closely associated with self identity and feelings of self worth. This is why involuntary retirement
and unemployment create many individual problems, tensions and stress. Stress can also be a
consequence of excessive work. Stress related illness seems to have increased in the run up to
the 21st century and has received a lot of attention from social scientists. It is sometimes
1 Technically known as internal locus of control. This is a measure which shows that a person perceives him/herself as having
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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attributed to inappropriate forms of leadership (Fiedler, Potter & McGuire, 1992). Work stress
can also be self-induced and, among managers in some organizations, long hours and home
work has become a cultural prescriptive that cannot easily be rejected. The workaholic's
singular dedication tends to exclude the variety of human experience we associate with
civilization; it narrows or excludes social intercourse, including family relations, and has been
likened by some to a form of psychopathology.
In the last decade of the 20" century, as a result of combination of technological
development and economic conditions, part time work has grown rapidly, particularly in Europe,
and women have taken up a larger share of the labour market. These labour market
developments, if sustained, will have an effect on the work ethic.
While intellectual inquiries into the work ethic are usually considered to be within the
field of the behavioral social sciences, economics has recently claimed a stake. Buckley and
Casson (1994) have argued that the main threat to the position of economics as an explanation
of economic behavior "comes from accumulating evidence that cultural factors are key
determinants of economic performance". They argue that culture can be considered to be a
major component of human capital. The argument is that people in two different countries may
have identical skills, but one country's workers may be more productive "because the moral
content of the local culture makes them better motivated" (p.1040). The "moral content of the
local culture" seems very similar to our description of the work ethic but the validity of the
argument that local cultural differences or the work ethic can be considered as "key
determinants of economic performance" has not been established.
A fair amount of cross-national research on the work ethic has been carried out.
International Perspectives
In the past decade the Meaning of Working Study and its offsprings (MOW, 1987;
Ruiz-Quintanilla, 1991) have collected evidence on how cultural, societal, and individual factors
shape the work ethic. Intensive personal interviews were conducted with respondents
representing all segments (occupational, educational, age-groups) of societies in Europe, the
USA, and Asia. In some countries additional data were collected for societal groups of special
interest like socialization agents (teachers). In other countries the study was replicated eight
years later to estimate changes on the group level. Three year longitudinal studies were
undertaken with youngsters entering the labor market to estimate individual change and
additional evidence was collected in complementary case studies. All in all, more than 30,000
respondents from Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, China, England, France, Germany
(both former Federal Republic as well as Democratic Republic), Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan,
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, Spain, the U.S. where
involved in one or the other study.
To summaries such a large amount of data we will confine ourselves to major cross-
cultural similarities and differences and their sources.
Employment and working is perceived as characterized by one of the four values: a
burden, a constraint, a responsibility (give and take), or as a social contribution. This is true
whether we talk to a professional athlete or unskilled factory worker, in Beijing or Antwerp, a
person starting the working career or entering retirement . For about 95 per cent of the
respondents in any given society, one of these work values clearly dominates their
understanding and thus their evaluation of work. Comparing the dominant view across countries
we learn that the work as responsibility view dominates in Japan, two-thirds of the respondents
endorsing it, while the same portion of the Slovak and Czech sees work as a social contribution.
Seeing work as a burden or constraint became more prominent in the U.S. between 1982 and
1989. (Ruiz-Quintanilla & England, i.p.)
We have seen that work can be perceived as an obligation (something one owes
society) or an entitlement (something society owes to a person). Differences between countries
on these values are important considerations to help us understand contractual relations
between employees and the organization (Rousseau, 1995). While there is high agreement
between the Western and Asian societies in what contributes to the entitlement (e.g.
responsibility to receive retraining or participation in decision making) and what belongs to the
obligation side of the equation (for example to give value and quality, etc.) this black-and-white
picture becomes blurred in the former communist states and Israel. In the latter, respondents
have a hard time distinguishing between what are rights and what duties of work. This can be
understood as a consequence of a mixture between an individualistic and more collectivistic
approach in the dominant ideology. Being able to distinguish between rights and duties
assumes that people tend to distinguish between themselves as 'private' person and citizen,
and their role in the world of work, between employees and employers or between the partners
of the contract.
Comparing the entitlement/obligation results for Belgium, Germany, the USA, and Japan
(Ruiz-Quintanilla & England, 1993) we can summarize that the two European labor forces have
the highest entitlement expectations; the Japanese follow, and the U.S. American have the
lowest entitlement expectation. The reverse is true for the obligation scores. In addition these
results proved to be rather stable over a period of six to nine years. Obviously, the respective
labor forces start from different expectation points about what society/organization owe
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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individuals in terms of interesting and meaningful work, work as a right versus a duty, and about
who -the organization or the workers themselves- should care for the workers future. We can
assume that this result results also in a different understanding of "what is fair and what isn't" in
these countries. Finally, in all countries the obligation orientation gets more dominant and the
entitlement expectations weaker with age, increasing educational and occupational level.
In the seven country MOW work study the measure of work centrality was highest in
Japan and lowest for Britain. The United States sample came somewhere in the middle. Israel
and Slovenia had high work centrality, Germany and the Netherlands had low scores. In the
same countries the research took samples of different occupational groups. The findings show
that jobs requiring high skills and relative low centralized control (that is to say a higher measure
of independence), had high work centrality (chemical engineers, self-employed, and teachers).
Adding other research data, it seems that people who have high work ethic values have
skilled and moderately autonomous jobs, are older rather than younger, and come from
countries like Japan, China, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Israel that have only recently moved away
from agriculture and towards industrialization. The work ethic is lower but emphasis on hobbies,
sport, recreation, and social activity is higher in countries like Britain, Germany, and the
Netherlands which had their industrial revolution some two and a half centuries ago.
The Strathclyde Centre for the Study of Public Policy (1994) has carried out survey work
in ten Central and Eastern European countries, and included a question on what people would
do if by luck they unexpectedly came into a lot of money. One theoretical alternative was ' To try
to get a better job'. The answers varied from 4 % in Slovenia to 16 % in Croatia. An alternative
that attracted many was 'Start business, buy farm'. In every country the answer was 20 % or
above, 57 % in Romania, 41 % in Croatia and 40 % in Bulgaria. There were also substantial
variations in those who wanted to take the money and stop working: 4 % in Slovakia and
Romania, but 19 % in Bulgaria and 21 % in Belarus.
To be really useful this type of data would have to be followed up with analysis of the
degree of realism or fantasy these answers imply. For instance, realistic opportunity of starting a
business or buying a farm- the 57 % of the Romanians who have answered that question? Are
they indulging in a daydream or are they genuinely motivated to become entrepreneurs? This
type of survey work needs to be followed up. In general, country differences are interesting but
are difficult to explain and have little policy relevance.
Work Ethic and Policy
There can be little doubt that at the moment and for the vast majority of people, work
occupies an important place in life and takes up a considerable amount of the available time
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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between the end of education and retirement. There is now a trend in Western as well as
Eastern countries for education to take up more time and for retirement to come earlier while at
the same time, life expectancy is increasing. The consequence of these developments suggest
that in the future over the life span from birth to death, work as traditionally conceived will
become less important, or at least will take up less of the available time (Heller, 1991).
Nevertheless, the work ethic usefully underpins the economic system. The goods and
services, including food production, which we need for survival as well as for higher standards
of living, require human activity. That part of activity for which people receive pay are called
work. In this sense the term 'work' in the phrase work ethic is slightly misleading because men
and women undertake many different activities that are important for our standard of living that
require considerable effort - the equivalent of hard work - and are capable of being
characterized as being rational, frugal, achievement-oriented and deserving. Child rearing and
housewifery are probably the best modern examples, but one can also include studying,
amateur sports, and unpaid work for voluntary organizations like the Red Cross and Amnesty
We will stay with the term 'work ethic' but mentally include the important range of unpaid
activities that sustain the social fabric of our society. The importance of the work ethic is its
provision of a motivational dynamism that gets things done. It is this characteristic that Max
Weber identified when he attributed the rise of modern capitalism in part to the Protestant ethic.
Today, as we have seen, this ethic thrives in several parts of the world, like Japan and Israel,
which espouse different religions. In the older western industrialized countries the centrality of
working retains an important position but is complemented by other salient life interests, like the
family and recreational activity.
What implications do these findings have for policy at organizational and national levels?
Accepting that, other things being equal, a high work ethic has practical utility, what can be done
to increase it in companies or countries where it is considered to be exceptionally low? It is not
sensible to increase the age level in an organization because we know that older people have a
higher work ethic, nor can one advance or retard industrialization by a century or so. We know
from other social science research that exhortation alone is not very effective in changing
attitudes or behavior, though parental and school influences can be important. It seems that
findings which relate the work ethic to the nature and design of jobs offer useful policy
recommendations but need to be tested further. Several studies have shown that high work
ethic values are related to educational achievement, senior level jobs, and work which allows
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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self-expression, a measure of autonomy and self-regulation. (Penn et al, 1994; Lundberg &
Peterson, 1994; and MOW, 1987).
These factors are interconnected but an underlying dimension is the nature of skill. Rose
(1991), using results of a large-scale survey on social change and economic life in Britain,
comes to the conclusion that the nature of a person's job and the level of skill largely determine
the strength of the work ethic. From the data Rose concludes that work involvement and the
work ethic can be strengthened by improving education and skill training. Similar improved work
ethic effects would result from designing jobs to have higher and more varied skill content.
Here, then, are several practical and feasible policy options at the level of a country
(educational improvement) and at the level of organization (work design changes) which seems
capable of having a positive effect on the work ethic.
The Work Ethic WP 95-08
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Buckley, P. and Carson, M. (1994) 'Economics as an imperialist social science', Human
Relations 45 (9): 1035-1052
Fiedler, F., Potter, E. III and McGuire, M. (1992). 'Stress and effective leadership decisions', in:
F. Heller (ed.) Decision-making and leadership. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Furnham, A. (1987) 'Work related beliefs and human values'. Personality and Individual
Differences 8 (5): 627-37.
Heller, F. A. (1991) 'Reassessing the work ethic: A new look at work and other activities',
European Work & Organizational Psychologist, 1(2,3): 147-160.
Lundberg, C. D. and Peterson, M. F. (1994) 'The Meaning of Working in U.S. and Japanese
Local Governments at Three Hierarchical Levels', Human Relations, 47 (12):.
Of Working: An Eight Country Comparative Study, London: Academic Press.
Penn, R. and Ruberty (1994) Skill and occupational change, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rose, M. (1991) 'The Work Ethic: Women, skill and the ancient curse', Presidential Paper to
Section N (Sociology), British Association for the Advancement of Science, August 1991.
Rousseau, D. M. (1995) Promise in Action: Contracts in Organizations, Newbury Park, CA:
Ruiz-Quintanilla, S. A. (ed.) (1991) Work Centrality and Related Work Meanings, Hove, Sussex:
Lawrence Erlbaum.
Ruiz-Quintanilla, S.A. & England, G. W. (1993) 'Balanced and Imbalanced Societal Norms about
Working'. CAHRS working paper #93-20, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
Ruiz-Quintanilla, S. A. & England, G. W. (i.p.) 'How Working is Defined: Structure and Stability',
submitted to Journal of Organizational Behavior.
Strathclyde Centre for the Study of Public Policy (1994) University of Strathclyde, Glasgow,
Weber, Max (1930) The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism, London: Georg Allen &
... At the turn of the 21 st century, industrialism was replaced by globalization, resulting in the notion of a "hard working society"-collective behavior promoted by the Protestant values of work ethic rooted from the Christian religion (Reed et al., 2013, p. 256;Heller & Ruiz-Quintanilla, 1995). The term "work ethic" is considered to be a derivative of the Protestant Work Ethic that was adopted to drive economic success (Swedberg & Agevall, 2005). ...
... The term "work ethic" is considered to be a derivative of the Protestant Work Ethic that was adopted to drive economic success (Swedberg & Agevall, 2005). As the Protestant Work Ethic increasingly influenced the social perspectives of morality and values among Western Europeans (Weber, 1930), Americans (McCortney & Engels, 2003), Japanese, Jewish people, and non-Christians (Heller & Ruiz-Quintanilla, 1995;Swedberg & Agevall, 2005), some of its religious underpinnings were lost. From an occupational perspective, the concept of work ethic can be understood as doing productive work (occupation), which entails working efficiently and arduously (form) to fulfil one's worldly calling or profession (function), motivated by acting on one's faith towards salvation in the afterlife (meaning). ...
The Philippine War on Drugs policies of “neutralization” of drug-related activity has resulted in the deaths of over 9,000 people suspected of drug-related crime. These measures are claimed to be necessary for the sake of productivity, peace, and order. Drawing on concepts of occupational justice, this paper examines distinct historical, social, and cultural values underlying notions of productivity and work ethic, and the influence of these values on the Philippine War on Drugs political rhetoric. Looking at drug use as a non-sanctioned occupation, according to occupation-related concepts of form, function, and meaning, it becomes apparent that drug use may, in some ways, conform to Filipino social norms, values, and moral standards, such as to enhance productivity and economic participation. We contend that, contrary to government claims, the War on Drugs has contributed to occupational injustices, particularly occupational apartheid and occupational marginalization. We propose that country- and culture-specific scholarship about drug use that encompasses considerations of spiritual health, occupational justice, and occupational rights can enrich humane policies and practices. Re-examination of drug use policies and practices in drug rehabilitation through an occupational lens may contribute to occupationally just possibilities for Filipino citizens.
... Studies on work ethics were first carried out in the 1970s based on the awareness on its importance coupled with rooted experiences encountered during the European industrial revolution, when workers began to demand for their rights from employers. With obvious advantages related to work ethics, it attracts many researchers to involve in the study on the subject such as Heller and Ruiz-Quintanilla (1995), Buchholz (1978), Geren (2011), Van Ness et al. (2010 and Mustakim et al. (2014). The debates became more significant when major companies like Enron, World-Com, Parmalat and many others faced failures in managing their organizations (Dibra 2016). ...
Full-text available
This study examines the influences of individual behaviour and organizational commitment towards the enhancement of Islamic Work Ethics (IWE) at the Royal Malaysian Air Force. It involved 312 respondents of different backgrounds and the data were analysed using descriptive analysis and structural equation modelling (SEM) analysis. The results show that both individual behaviour and organizational commitment have significantly correlated with the enhancement of IWE. The findings could help managers especially of multinational corporations operating in Muslim countries to enhance the company performances by instituting elements of IWE in their organizations. This can be done by promoting the understanding of IWE and providing a conducive environment to practice it.
... Based on this evidence, five categories of work values and ethics (work orientations) are considered to represent variables appropriate for exploring links with OCBs: In order to represent these variables, some researchers have used the term 'work values' (e.g. Dose, 1997), while some others have used the term 'work ethics' (Heller, 1997). In this study, the term "Work Values" or 'Work Values and Ethics' is used alternatively to represent these five variables. ...
Full-text available
This study examined the impact of work values and individual characteristics on organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and task performance (TP). Based on the arguments of Social Capital Theory, a theoretical foundation was developed to use work values as antecedents of OCB. Analyzing 416 responses from Sri Lankan manufacturing sector employees, it was found that gender and employment category were related to citizenship performance, while level of education was related to task performance. More importantly, the impact of work values (work norms, work ethics, and intrinsic values) on OCB was found to be more significant than that of demographic factors. Overall, the study contributes to individual attributes and work value theories of OCB by providing empirical evidence to understand how strongly individual attributes and work values affect OCB.
... In order to represent these variables, some researchers have used the term "work values" (e.g. Dose, 1997), while some others have used the term "work ethics" (Heller, 1997). In this study, we use the term "Work Values" or "Work Values and Ethics" alternatively to represent the five variables. ...
Full-text available
This study examines the impact of work values and individual characteristics on organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB) and task performance (TP). A theoretical foundation was developed in order to use work values and ethics as antecedents of OCB. Using five work related values orientations and 416 responses from Sri Lankan manufacturing sector employees, it is found that gender, employment category, and level of education influence citizenship performance. Importantly, the impact of work values on OCB is found to be more significant than that of demographic factors, with three dimensions (work norms, work ethics, and intrinsic values) found to be significant in influencing OCB. Differences between foreign invested firms and local firms are also found with regard to the impact of demographic factors and work values on OCB. Overall, the study contributes to theories and application of work values and OCB.
The research program undertaken by the Meaning of Working (MOW) International Research Team has documented effects of individual characteristics and macrosocioeconomic variables on work-related values and beliefs in different countries. The present study adds another dimension to this work by studying intact organizations-local governments in the United States and Japan-in place of the usual MOW samples of occupational groups. The measures used cover the three core facets of the "Meaning of Working"-work centrality, work goals, and entitlement/obligation norms. By studying intact organizations, the effects of other contextual variables-organization, region, and hierarchical level-in addition to country become evident.
The aim of this paper is to argue that psychological research on the work ethic, or work centrality, uses too narrow a focus for understanding shifts in behaviour and attitudes over time. The appropriate unit of analysis is activity. Working is a subcategory of this larger unit. Six areas of activity are distinguished: education and training in early life, paid tasks or work, updating education throughout life, unpaid tasks or voluntary activity, education of the third age, and active or passive leisure. Historical, sociological, and anthropological evidence is reviewed and related to the psychological analysis of the meaning of working. It emerges that work is a controversial topic; it is extensively praised by some and condemned by others. Few would deny that paid work is a necessary way of obtaining basic and supplementary human requirements under present-day circumstances, but the differential conditions and constraints under which it is carried out are not always accepted as a necessary corollary. Is paid work a necessary or a desirable means of obtaining a standard of living? The answer depends on whether paid work is seen in isolation or as a subsystem of a wider range of activities which together result in a fulfilling life.
Economics as an imperialist social scienceStress and effective leadership decisions Decision-making and leadershipWork related beliefs and human values
  • P Buckley
  • M Carson
  • F Fiedler
  • E Potter
  • M A Mcguire
Buckley, P. and Carson, M. (1994) 'Economics as an imperialist social science', Human Relations 45 (9): 1035-1052 Fiedler, F., Potter, E. III and McGuire, M. (1992). 'Stress and effective leadership decisions', in: F. Heller (ed.) Decision-making and leadership. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Furnham, A. (1987) 'Work related beliefs and human values'. Personality and Individual Differences 8 (5): 627-37