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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


"We and "Them" Companies

Is the old-fashioned work ethic gone for good?




Our forefathers measured the social and moral fitness of people according to their work ethics. Individuals who worked hard deserved to reap the harvest of their work. Since then our attitude toward work has changed profoundly, shifting from an old-fashioned work ethic to a cynical, me-first outlook.

The good old days (1900-1960):

Hard work was considered a sign of personal integrity.

Strong home and family ties predominated.

Church and schools reinforced the importance of hard work.

One parent worked to earn money while the other worked to manage the family.

A high school graduate was considered to have a good education.

Craftsmanship was important.

Work was fun.

Customers were friends and neighbors.

The person who did the most set the standard.


The transformation (1960-1990):

People worked to buy items.

Work wasn't fun.

Individuals sought fun and relaxation outside of work.

A bachelor's degree was considered a good education.

Employees were required to work overtime, if needed, and looked forward to the extra money.

Workers didn't want to use their energy at work; they saved it until they got home.

Customers were strangers.


The new work ethic (1990-present):

Instant gratification rules.

We live in the most affluent environment ever.

Today's jobs are temporary--individuals are always looking for something better.

Both parents must work to support their desired lifestyle.

Physical work is considered undesirable.

A master's degree is considered a good education.

Working overtime is considered unacceptable.

People who work hard are outcasts.

The person who does the least sets the standard.


Management issues today:

Employees have little company loyalty and trust.

People are self-oriented.

People are professionally oriented rather than company-oriented.

A conflict exists between organizational goals, and individual needs and wants.

Organizations spend more money on mergers than they do on capital equipment.

All but core-capability jobs are candidates for outsourcing.

There's little or no job security.


The productive relationship between employees and management has broken down. Company spirit and pride have disappeared. Companies used to treat their employees like fine china, continuously polishing them and keeping them in good condition. Today, they treat their employees like paper plates--disposable items that need little or no maintenance.

Today's employees aren't committed to spending their working lives with the same employer. After two years in the same job, it's considered OK to move on. For example, not long ago we trained two Six Sigma Black Belts for a company that invested a considerable amount of money on them. The individuals left the company within two months of achieving their Black Belt status. Obviously, this employer received no benefit for providing the training, but it gave these employees additional skills so that they could find jobs that offered more money. Discouraged by such behavior, companies are more likely to refrain from investing in their employees. Employees, in turn, will continue to react the way they do because their companies are treating them like throw-away items.

It's time for companies to accept their responsibilities to their employees. They must give them a reason to be proud of their company. Companies should build team spirit and invest in developing their employees. In return, employees must realize that their prosperity is a gift that the company gives them. They should realize that the company's reputation, profits and losses are their responsibility. Companies and employees both should feel that they're responsible for providing a fair return to the people who invested in the organization. To do that, they must make the best use of their time and talents. They must ask themselves if their salaries were fairly earned: Would they pay someone else the same wage to do their job, or would they expect much more of them?

There's a direct relationship between the last time we went hungry and our work ethic. Maybe if we worked harder, we could take in our belts a few notches.

Our companies are "we" and "them" companies, and we need to make them "us" companies.

About the author
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of Harrington Group. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 26 books. Visit his Web site at www.harrington-institute.com.