To determine whether a country is well developed or not, one can look at how much intelligent work people in that country engage in. It is safe to claim a healthy work ethic is the driving force behind the rise or fall of an organization in today’s competitive economy. The rise or fall of an organization also has to do with human resource management theory and practice. An organizational climate in which self-improvement is highly approved is likely to increase human performance (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005). A behavioral management philosophy is that a climate that approves and rewards new behaviors will encourage the maintenance of these new behaviors. This is probably why human resource managers need to study work ethics, especially in their relationship to theory X and theory Y. This article begins with a background of different perspectives of work ethics, continues with the argument that a healthy work ethic is needed in today’s human resource management, including e-human resource management (e-HRM) in the 21st century, and concludes with future trends and a brief summary. It is the author’s intent that through this vibrant discussion of a healthy work ethic in this new century, we can reach some common agreement, although this topic itself has always been a controversial one.
To correctly understand one’s work ethics, it is necessary to examine how people view work through the ages. A brief review of the dominant meanings that people have given to work at different times in history contributes to our understanding of work ethics needed in today’s organizations.
Wenrich, Wenrich, and Galloway (1988) noted that the Hebrews thought of work as painful drudgery and so did the Greeks and Romans. The same scholars noted that early Christianity followed the Jewish tradition by regarding work as a punishment. However, everyone in the West seems to agree that Christianity added a positive function, that work is necessary not only to earn one’s living, but also so that those who wished could share their profits with the poor. Many philanthropists in the Western societies share this positive view of work by donating much of their wealth to charitable organizations. For example, Bill Gates and the second wealthiest individual in the United States have given away 80% of their wealth to societies in the world. It is true in the past people worked for their livelihood—a means of substance. This is true in the past for the Europeans and so is the case with Asians. Unfortunately, a number of people in developing countries still struggle to work for just this livelihood. Most Africans belong to this category. To people in developed countries, they work beyond their daily bread; they work because it is the right and moral thing to do (Kazanas, Baker, Miller, & Hannah, 1973; Tilgher, 1930). DeGrazia (1962) wrote that American Protestants and Puritans considered work as good and idleness as bad.
To date, scholars and practitioners have summarized seven well accepted viewpoints towards work:
work is continuous and leads to additional activity;
work is productive and produces goods and services;
work requires physical and mental exertion;
work has socio-psychological aspects;
work is performed on a regular or scheduled basis;
work requires a degree of constraint; and
work is performed for a personal purpose (intrinsic or extrinsic). (Petty & Brewer, 2005)
The German philosopher, Marx argued that work is social activity, and that the conditions and forms under and through which people work are socially determined and change over time (Whelan, 1999). One can try to understand Marx’s view toward work by taking a look at how he defined work. Marx (1890, 1929) defined work as a process between humans and nature in which humans, through their own activities, initiate, regulate, and control the material reactions between themselves and nature. More importantly, work produces surplus value according to Marx (Wang, 2006).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Assumptions: Beliefs that something will happen. Assumption’s synonym can be supposition.
Controlling: Refers to the process of having power or authority over somebody or something.
Ethics: Refers to moral or correct behavior. When used in its plural form, it means a system of moral or correct conduct, moral principles. In this article, ethic is a countable noun, meaning moral and correct conduct and moral principles. Traditionally, organizations focused on X work ethic, which indicates employees with X work ethic must be controlled, coerced, and forced to work. As more and more organizations buy into humanism, which means employees have unlimited potential for work and learning, organizations begin to look further into Y work ethic, which is more desirable in terms of achieving surplus value in work.
Work: Work is defined as to labor, exert force. Of course, it has many different yet similar meanings. However, Bott, Slapar, and Wang (2003) defined work as a physical or mental effort directed toward some end or purpose. This may be a paycheck or it could be the joy and satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. To some people, work is a good and moral thing to do. To others, work may be painful drudgery that must be avoided. This dichotomy leads to what we call X work ethic and Y work ethic in today’s organizations.