Work Ethics.   What Does it Mean?

As business, industry, and education face challenges to each produce workers and students who perform at optimum levels, all are faced with the issue of the work ethic.  Nearly all discussions with emphasis of linking or improving businesses and education captures work ethic somewhere in the discourse.  Underlying questions concerning work ethics is the development of an acceptable definition that is current with today’s environment, the determination of whether work ethics is a teachable characteristic, and the development of acceptable and practical pedagogy.


Work has been with humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve in Biblical text.  And, with that notion of work as a punishment for sin, came the issue of determining what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors toward that work.  Some have come to call this the ethics of work.  Considering these notions of work and values we begin to form the basis of establishing a foundation about issues concerning work and begin forming the framework for work ethics.


Some researchers purport that the work ethic has not declined as drastically as it appears.  Rather, the content of the work ethic has changed.  People are struggling between “success and self-fulfillment.”  In 1968, 69% of American workers felt that working hard was the way to reach personal success.  That figure had declined to only 39% by 1971.  However, we do find that today’s youth expect much more in way of intrinsic rewards.  Yet, surveys indicate that they do not receive these rewards.  Investigation indicates that one reason could be that those persons imposing the reward and motivation structures are operating based on principles that are no longer appropriate.  Some writers state simply that work ethics is a willingness to stay employed while otehrs focus on beliefs, values, and principles. 


Work ethics has another dimension that adds to its dynamic nature.  Work ethics is relative to the time period in which it is measured and the variables are not independently predictive.  We must redefine work ethics to reflect the attitudes, desires, and behaviors of today’s employed if we are to develop pedagogy that will foster changes in worker behavior that will be sustained as situations change.  Most contemporary research focuses on teaching skills and knowledge, and not attitudes. 


Work-related social skills and habits are the most important entry-level skills sought in employees.  Dependability and proper attitudes were ranked highest in a recent study.  Cognitive and psychomotor skills may not be as important for job survival as is positive work ethics and values.  However, over 50% of youth leave school not knowing how work-related social skills affect their ability to find and keep a job.  Because teaching touches all lives, the teaching of work ethics is vitally important.  Yet, little data exists on exactly what technology and industrial educators teach.


 Can Work Ethics Be Taught?

While educators cannot undo years of experiences and behaviors that shape the moral character of the worker, one can demonstrate acceptable behavior and how to recognize proper courses of action in any given situation.  Worker behavior is learned in the educational process.  Teaching methods have a direct impact on the development of work ethics in students.  The moral development theories of Kohlberg, Piaget, and others are critical to developing strategies for teaching work ethics.  Educators cannot teach work ethics effectively if they do not understand developmental stages within which the students function.  Work ethics must be taught.  However, data are lacking that indicate how to teach it.


Teaching Work Ethics

Students today are lacking in areas known as work ethics.  Research also indicates that affective skills are just as important as psychomotor and cognitive.  Current literature offers many suggestions for the teaching of work ethic attributes.  However, more research must be conducted.


The methods used by educators have a definite direct impact on the moral development of students.  If so, teachers must understand the strategies employed and how student moral development is affected. Most teachers of technology and industrial content courses teach work ethics unintentionally.  Most of these educators believe they are prepared to teach work ethics.  Those educators also believe that work ethics is a teachable characteristic.  However, most only teach work ethics as the situation arises and many do not exhibit the expertise to teach work ethics effectively.


Components of work ethics instruction must include work habits, values, and attitudes.  Three instances of when work ethics can effectively be taught are:  throughout the instruction, as a separate course, or as a combination.


Critical reflection is also a method of enforcing work ethics.  The curriculum must include critical reflection, appreciation for moral deliberation, empathy, interpersonal skills, knowledge, reasoning, and courage.


Certain types of work values and attitudes should be taught.  The most frequently taught values and attitudes  are punctuality, dependability, reliability, responsibility, dedication, honesty, conscientiousness, ambition, cooperativeness, helpfulness, adaptability, and resourcefulness.  


Some researchers suggest that a formal code of professional ethics be established. Others state that an emphasis on a code of ethics is not equivalent to institutionalizing a process of reasoning.  Instead of a formal code of ethics, that may be enforceable but not necessarily teachable, work ethics education should include punctuality, attendance, conducting quality work, respect for fellow workers, honesty, and showing initiative.

Research suggests that work ethics begin with a study of the belief systems around a culture or occupational environment.  These belief systems, regardless of the content, should be taught in coordination with psychomotor skills.


While much of the literature has a variety of viewpoints concerning the content of work ethics instruction, researchers and writers of contemporary work ethics literature tend to gravitate toward the democratic teaching methods as opposed to the indoctrinal methods.


The democratic teaching methods as described by John Dewey are operationally different from the indoctrinal methods of Sneddin and Prosser.  Democratic methods include hands-on activities, practical cases, critical reflection, and real-life scenarios.  Either method, democratic or indoctrinal, can be ineffectively used and result in no improvements or a decrease in desired behavior.


Research on the approaches most commonly used by technical and industrial educators illustrates that educators use a combination of democratic and indoctrinal.  Democratic methods include group discussions, one-on-one counseling, role-play, team building, problem solving, and individualized instruction.  Review of teaching methods employed indicate that 90% of the educators report using group discussion and 90% report using one-on-one counseling.  Of the instructors surveyed, 68% reported suing role-play as a major method of teaching work ethics.


Indoctrinal methods are typically identified as methods in which information is merely disseminated.  The indoctrinal methods include reward systems, role modeling, guest speakers, lectures and rote learning.  No experimentation or hands-on activities are employed.  Of the indoctrinal methods, 94% of the educators studied use reward systems and 86% use role modeling.


Manipulative or indoctrinating methods should not be used for instruction of work ethics.  Educational practices should instead develop critical judgment by students to participate in a free and open discourse.  Discussions in classes should be limited and should be coupled with role modeling and role-play.  When indoctrinal methods are used, reward systems and role modeling seem to be the only two methods that have proven to be at all effective.  Research indicates that the other indoctrinal methods, especially lecture, have proven to be ineffective.


Real cases and real problems which students are likely to encounter are most appropriate and effective.  Other researchers and practitioners believe in the use of case studies as well.  While others advocate case studies, some researchers warn against the irresponsible use of them.  If not carefully administered, case studies presented for the purpose of teaching work ethics may only focus on or address symptoms of a larger social ill.


Methods that consistently demonstrate a pattern of behavior that, if emulated, will cause success in teaching work ethic seem to be most appropriate.  The teacher as facilitator as well as participant or role model is effective for teaching work values and attitudes.  When the educator can serve in this capacity and make training relative to work, learning and behavior change relative to work ethics has been observed.


Pedagogy that takes place within the naturally occurring situation has proven effective.  Community service projects, internships, cooperative education, and apprenticeships are appropriate.  These methods promote democratic participation.  Cooperative based education, especially when group size is between five and fifteen individuals appear to be most effective.  These methods work well because the individuals do not remain ignorant to workplace demands and abuses.


An excellent model for teaching work place ethics is the model by Berryman (1991).  Berryman proposes seven strategies.

1.        Modeling – the performance of an activity by an expert so that students can learn from the expert how that task can/should be done.

2.        Coaching – a teacher observes a student performing a task and provides helpful feedback in the form of support, modeling, reminders, and suggestions of new tasks which could bring his/her performance closer to that of an expert.

3.        Scaffolding – support for the students so that they can carry out the tasks.

4.        Fading – gradual removal of support so that the students finally come to perform their tasks on their own.

5.        Articulation – means for providing students the opportunity to articulate their reasoning and their problem solving strategies.

6.        Reflection – any technique that allows students to compare their own problem solving process with that of an expert or another student, and ultimately an internal model of expertise.

7.        Exploration – any devise that pushes the students into a mode of problem solving on their own.



Current literature supports the belief that work ethics is a behavior characterized by many attributes.  If this behavior is monitored and evaluated, appropriate intervention methods can be utilized to produce desired changes in that behavior.  Educators must understand the nature of behavior modification and the framework in which the work ethic functions.  Curriculum must be designed which provides the opportunity for students to explore and develop in a democratic approach to learning with every possibility for instruction within a natural setting.  The future of business, industry, and individuals is dependent upon the research and exploration into the development of work ethic instructional methods.


Joseph L. Miller is a Tech Prep Coordinator in Georgia and is a Doctoral Student at Florida State University pursuing studies in Educational Leadership.