Can You Teach Work Ethic?

Christina Lewellen
May 1, 2008
COLUMN : Talking to Dealers

There is a small, independent coffee shop near my house that I frequent enough to have had a latte named for me. There's a young lady named Brittany who works the after-school shift, and I would argue that she serves as physical proof that there is hope for this country. Hope because she can't sit still. When she's not steaming milk or brewing espresso, she busies herself sweeping, wiping down surfaces and organizing shelves. There's no boss looking over her shoulder and no co-workers showing her up. At the ripe old age of something that ends in -teen, she simply likes to work and takes pride in how she performs.

What I'm wondering with increasing frequency is if Brittany's work ethic is rare. I can't say I've ever met the owner of a window and door dealership who says, "You know, Chris, I have so many hard-working, qualified candidates banging down my door, I'm forced to turn some of them away." I probably don't need to spell out that the reality is just the opposite. Most of us don't follow a set career path to end up in the window and door industry. The required knowledge to run a dealership, design a window or even write a magazine column comes with time.

Similarly, your workers can be trained to sell windows, install products and field customer service phone calls. But how do you teach work ethic? "When I was brought up, you worked a full day and thrived to work toward advancing," says Charlie Cusimano of Interstate Windows and Doors, a Slidell, La., dealer. "I don't see that as much anymore."

It's not that they're not smart. It's not that they're not showing up on time and doing their job according to the description. It's really about going the extra mile, Charlie says. "Not only is it tough finding qualified, educated, skilled workers," he adds. "But once you do find somebody, they often have no initiative."

My buddy Charlie and I agree on another issue-entitlement. A lot of younger workers sure want to make good money, but are they willing to exert the effort to earn it? "Even the younger generation sales guys want to come in and make $60,000 to $100,000 a year. They come out of college thinking, 'I'm worth $1,000 a week,'" he says. "The expectations are that they'll go from $20,000 to $60,000 a year in a short time."

So I asked Charlie if he thinks work ethic can be taught. He didn't need to think long. "Nah," he told me. "You can't train common sense. I've learned over the years that when I interview somebody, I've adapted a way of testing common sense. Forget their work history-do they have common sense? I'll lay a piece of 2 x 4 and a 2 x 6 piece of wood on my desk and see if they can tell me the difference between the two."

Charlie and most folks are lucky to have at least a few Brittanys in the crowd-the types of folks who won't walk past a piece of trash on the floor without picking it up or stay a little past quitting time to finish cleaning up. Surely, in any profession, there will always be bad apples. What matters, I guess, is your good-to-bad apple ratio-and whether that metric is stable or getting worse with time.

Maybe work ethic can be observed and learned. Perhaps the non-go-getters will pick up a tip or two from more ambitious employees. "I guess they have to learn how to learn from somebody," Charlie says. "Some people might be teachable."

Well, I'm not sure...but I think Brittany could have a very lucrative future in the window and door industry, perhaps training window installers and customer service reps. I think I'll go order a latte and start the recruiting process.

Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at