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Main article: Work (attitudes towards)

Work ethic is a set of values based on the moral virtues of hard work and diligence. It is also a belief in moral benefit of work and its ability to enhance character. An example would be the Protestant work ethic or Chinese work ethic. A work ethic may include being reliable, having initiative or maintaining social skills.

Workers exhibiting a good work ethic in theory (and ideally in practice) should be selected for better positions, more responsibility and ultimately promotion. Workers who fail to exhibit a good work ethic may be regarded as failing to provide fair value for the wage the employer is paying them and should not be promoted or placed in positions of greater responsibility.

One central concept that forms part of the basis of the free market economic theory of western capitalism is that workers who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded (eventually) and will move ahead, and that those who do not should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their own poor performance.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Criticism of Work Ethic concept

Slacker and hippie cultures have challenged these values in recent times. In the 19th century, the "Arts and Crafts" movement of William Morris in the UK and Elbert Hubbard in the US noted how "alienation" of workers from ownership of the tools of production and their work product was destructive of the work ethic because in the expanding firms of that era, the workers saw no point in doing more than the minimum. The industrial engineer Frederick Taylor revised the notion of work ethic to include giving up control over the work process to management so that the latter could study and "rationalize" the work process, and the notion of work ethic thereafter included acknowledgment of management control.

Marxists, and most non-Marxist sociologists, make short shrift of "work ethic" as a useful sociological concept. They argue having a "work ethic" in excess of management's control doesn't appear rational in any mature industry where the employee can't rationally hope to become more than a manager whose fate still depends on the owner's decisions. Sociology prefers to renarrate excess work ethic as a form of alienation from truer needs for family and community connections, and twentieth century "critical theory" sees the "work ethic" as a unilateral demand which evolved from a mass confusion between Jon Stewart's "Protestant work ethic" of company founders, and a sociologically uninteresting phenomenon (rare enough to not register on a mass radar screen) which in fact produces deviance (of interest to the sociologist) in the form of addiction and family neglect.

In fact, an excess "work ethic" is often fueled (according again to sociology) by addictions such as the widespread addiction to nice drugs in American rural communities, which has been shown to result from excessive work schedules. In other environments, it creates a sharp divide between work and play, and neglect in the latter of any recreation (time with family, volunteer work, or cultural pursuits) which reminds the workaholic of "work".

Many white collar employees, in a rational reaction to a demand for a "work ethic" involving the sacrifice of unpaid hours, cultivate a rhetorical "work ethic" consisting of external obeisance to absolute management control while producing little.


  • Daniel T. Rogers. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978.

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