Why that Degree Won’t Make You a Great Employee
(and what you can do about it)
Congratulations! You are now (or soon will be) a high-school or college graduate, with years of knowledge stockpiled in your brain. After all the toil of academia, you’re no doubt ready to dive into work and start making a name for yourself – and some serious bank, to boot.
But just having that degree won’t make you a desirable employee. Job-specific skills are great, but they’re not the complete picture. That’s because you also need a whole host of “soft skills” – commonly referred to as Workplace Readiness Skills (WRS) – to succeed in business.
Of those soft skills, work ethic has been identified as one of the most important. For a company to function optimally, every employee – from the top to the bottom – must have a strong work ethic. But what does that mean, exactly?
Your work ethic refers to the personal principles that guide how you approach your work responsibilities. Do you show up to work on time, or do you drag in 15 minutes late with your makeup bag in one hand and a half-eaten chicken biscuit in the other? Do you work hard on a task until it’s done, or do you get bored and give up halfway through? Can you take direction – even from someone you don’t like or respect?
Here are four traits that constitute a strong, positive work ethic. Which are among your strengths? In which areas are you weak? It’s important to understand exactly where you stand if you want to stand out as a desirable employee.
- Integrity. Honesty and trust: these form the foundation for your business relationships. When you commit to doing something, do you follow through? If you make a mistake, do you confess to it – or do you blame it on someone else? Do you work on personal projects during work time, or steal toilet paper and Post-Its for home? Integrity makes you reliable and dependable. It means you can be counted on to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. The great boxer George Foreman once said, “The greatest asset…is integrity. Everyone is searching for it, asking, ‘Who can I do business with that I trust?’” That’s so true for employers. They want employees they can trust, who follow company policy, respect company time and property, and who can build trusted relationships with their peers.
- Professionalism. David Maister, author of True Professionalism, explains professionalism as “the description you hope others will give to you.” So – how would you want your work colleagues to describe you? Perhaps the first thing that pops into your head is your clothes. That’s because professionalism is very much about your appearance – not because it’s the most important, but because it’s usually the first thing people notice. Are your clothes clean, neat, and appropriate for the environment? Are you well groomed? If you’re not presenting yourself professionally, then you’re risking the value of everything else you have to offer…because first impressions are very hard to change. Other professionalism traits include etiquette (respectful behavior), composure (are you unflappable or do you crack under pressure?), and competence (how capable are you to do your job? Are you organized, knowledgeable, and confident?). In an environment where you are expected to represent the best of yourself, does your appearance, etiquette, composure, and competence make the grade?
- Self-Discipline. Controlling your emotions and overcoming your weaknesses are both aspects of self-discipline. In a work environment, self-discipline is crucial. No matter what career you’re in, you can pretty much bet you’ll encounter people you don’t like and tasks you don’t want to do. Self-discipline gets you through it. When you have to take orders from a hateful, unappreciative boss, self-discipline gives you the strength to govern your frustration and remain professional. When you have to write a forty-page report over the Thanksgiving holiday, self-discipline gives you focus and moves you past procrastination. Self-discipline isn’t easy; in fact, one of the hardest battles you’ll ever fight is with your own self. But you can’t succeed without it. As former president Harry Truman said, “In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves…self-discipline with all of them came first.” Fortunately, self-discipline is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
- Self-Motivation. NBA player DeMar DeRozan said, “Other people gotta be told when to go to the gym, what to work out, what to work on, what to do. For me, it was always my own self-motivation of maybe just wanting to make it out of Compton.” That’s a great explanation of self-motivation. It’s about being driven by your own desires for success, without any force or influence from others. Self-motivation leads to strong work habits like good organization and time management. It also lends itself to a positive attitude and lifelong personal development. Unlike motivation that comes from others, self-motivation is something you control; it lets you be the master of your inspiration. You succeed because you want to.
So…how would you rate yourself in each area? If you’re doing great, then congratulations (again)! However, if you feel you need to improve – do it. Work ethic is something that’s completely within your control to strengthen and develop. Start by setting one specific, measurable goal related to the trait you want to improve. Make it an easy goal, one you’re confident you can achieve. Develop daily habits to support the goal and hold yourself accountable with a specific timeline. Once you taste success, let those achievements – and good goal habits – drive you toward even bigger goals and greater success.
A great tool to support your improvement efforts is a “career personality test” – preferably one designed by psychologists, like CareerFitter.com. Your work personality is different from your non-work personality. For example, at a social event you might be the life of the party, whereas at work you may not feel bold enough to speak out and draw attention. A career personality test is designed to give you insights on just your work personality, so you can accurately identify your career strengths and potential weaknesses. That way, you can be sure you’re working on areas that genuinely need improvement.
Zig Ziglar, the famous author and motivational speaker, once wrote, “You can’t have million-dollar dreams with a minimum-wage work ethic.” Minimum wage – the lowest you can go – is not going to make you rich. Neither will a poor work ethic. A poor work ethic won’t get you promoted, and in fact, it might even get you fired.
In such a competitive job market, make sure you get – and keep – the job you want. Understand and develop your work ethic and be prepared to talk about it with knowledge and confidence. It might take some effort – but your million-dollar dreams are worth it.