Can Retailers Teach a Work Ethic to Employees?

Discussion
Nov 01, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

In his keynote presentation at this year’s Fast Casual Executive Summit in New Orleans, Eric Chester, employee expert and author, discussed how more lenient approaches to parenting, as well as the current structure of the U.S. school system and standardized testing, has driven a sense of entitlement across what he defines as "Generation Why."

That sense of entitlement has led to a decreased work ethic, but Mr. Chester is confident employers can motivate their employees by following seven strategies:

1. Continuously canvas. Stores should be active in creating a pipeline of talent, as opposed to simply hoping for the right applications to land in their laps. Managers should be able to articulate their ideal employee profile, from lifestyle choices, activities, social circles and even career needs. An understanding of the market and various ways to identify and reach potential employees is required. The employee brand promise should be easily communicated. High-performing employees should be enticed to identify others similar to them and communicate the brand promise.

2. Go one-on-one. Understanding the employees’ goals, aspirations, needs, home life, social circles and even hobbies can help managers find ways to relate on an individual level in a way that increases trust.

3. Establish a target. If your front-line employees cannot articulate the core values of the business, everything else falls apart. Core values should be brief, bulleted statements that define the values each employee must hold dear, rather than long, jargon-laden mission statements.

4. Make instruction clearly matter. Consistency in employee expectations is a key factor in successfully igniting the work ethic. Training programs designed around teaching these expectations, the organizational values and what happens when those expectations are not met are critical to success.

5. Make your success their success. Typically the people that matter the most are paid the least. Getting creative with public appreciation, incentives and perks and compensation that can be tied to shared goals can help employees develop a sense of achievement.

6. Listen, respond and engage. Continuously ask for employee feedback on what will help them deliver better results for the brand and customers. Following through and taking action on their requests.

7. Light the path. Your stores should not be seen as just a job, but also a place to have a career. Transparently communicate to front-line employees about the opportunities for growth within the brand and establish programs that guide high performers along a path that helps them to reach high status, responsibilities and compensation in the organization.

Can employees be taught to adopt a work ethic if they don’t already have it when hired? What are the best ways for managers to motivate employees?

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24 Comments on "Can Retailers Teach a Work Ethic to Employees?"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
8 years 6 months ago
Yes, at least to a certain degree. A person cannot model behaviors they’ve never been exposed to, so leading by example, establishing clear and unambiguous standards and reinforcing good behaviors (as well as punishing poor behaviors) are all more important tools than at any other time in employment history. Ultimately though we are talking about changing culture here – not the culture of the workplace so much as the culture of the society as a whole and that is a little more problematic. We live in a society where responsibility has taken a back seat to extenuating circumstances; where people have been conditioned to believe there are no losers, just bad coaches; and where a frighteningly high percentage of people have learned to treat service workers – particularly retail workers – as nuisances at best and targets at worst. As far as the best tool I’d say it all starts with onboarding, getting the rules straight from the start. That’s where you either win or lose the hearts and minds. Beyond that the best motivational… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
Guest
8 years 6 months ago
Wait a second….are we saying that the reason we have such high turnover in stores and poor employee performance is generational? Really? Retailers, particularly in the US, are stuck in a very old paradigm. The retail business model was built on a large, transient, mostly part-time in-store workforce. That’s why there’s so much fuss in the industry around ACA – “you mean we might actually have to pay these people fringe benefits? Quick! Cut their hours and send them to the exchanges.” Frankly, I think we’re getting what we pay for, and I see no particular difference between millennials and other generations in that regard. While it may be easy for senior managers to say “Well, you’re lucky to have a job at all” (a VERY popular refrain during the Great Recession), apparently the workers don’t quite feel that way. So the long and the short of it is, if we’re serious about improving the workforce across ANY dimension (work ethic or otherwise) we have to be serious about changing our own perspectives. And I… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Lead by example. Drive corporate culture throughout the organization by relentlessly creating a constant “drumbeat” of desired behavior at every level of the company. Leaders will then exhibit the desired characteristics when they visit the stores. Store management should then lead by that example, etc.

David Livingston
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

This all sounds like a nice utopian theory. In real life, some retail business models simply want warm bodies that can be replaced after about 8 months. Their model is not concerned about a career path, feedback, or giving anyone a sense of achievement.

Now in other companies like Publix, HEB, Hy-Vee, and Costco, it’s much different. The best way to motivate both employees and managers is to put everyone on commission. As a manager, I recall my dad being paid minimum wage plus 20% of the stores profit. There were good years and then there were great years. Employees should also be paid minimal wages and bonus percentages depending on their level of responsibility. Money is the only true motivator.

Frank Riso
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Absolutely. Good managers make good employees. It is by example that employees become great and also how they move on to become managers. I recently met a store manager at a Niketown store in Seattle that was an example of a great manager, and his team was great as well, by his example of having worked part time while in high school and college. He then realized that retail was his calling…way to go MC.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Yes, if the company is willing to put in the effort and take a longer term perspective. As Ryan says, current staff need to exhibit the desired behavior, individual motivators need to be used, positive efforts need to be rewarded, and the reasons for the desired behavior need to be explicit. This is not an easy task, nor is it a quick fix.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
8 years 6 months ago

I have always believed that everyone should develop a healthy disregard for the impossible, that internal power that leads self-motivation.

When we can believe in that concept we motivate ourselves – providing we are not granted easy financial benefits for not being motivated.

Since I believe that motivation is self-produced, the best way for managers to reach employees is to “light the path” to a greater vision. For instance, in yesteryears when anyone was traded to the NY Yankees, they knew that more would be expected of them being placed on a repetitive championship team. The Yankee uniform was the motivator. It demanded one to raise their expectations to personally excel and grow in team play beyond all previous levels.

Tony Orlando
Guest
8 years 6 months ago
The real work ethic comes from the home before their first job. I had to help my mom and dad at home and in the store. It was expected of all 6 kids, and I learned to work hard for anything I wanted (golf clubs, baseball mitt etc…), and you know what? I took care of the things I bought with my own money, and realized that by working hard and doing what was asked of me, that there are rewards for that, not to mention the building of self esteem for a job well done. We currently do not have this mentality today, although in some homes it still exists, and that is one the main reasons we struggle to find good help. The work ethic can still be taught, as many of the young kids we hire have gone on in life to do amazing things, and still come back to visit the store when they are in town, talking about how much they learned about working hard. Be a good listener, pay… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Some employees can be brought around, and some can’t. “Listen, respond and engage” is the best path here, along with modeling behavior. I try to adopt all these goals, but with a small business I can’t really “light the path” because I run lean and there isn’t a need to promote a lot of captains and colonels. That’s true of a lot of businesses, and I know it’s demotivating to employees. When I get someone good, I work very hard to keep them happy, by all means possible. But if someone isn’t working out after a couple months, despite my best efforts, I’m quick to cut them for the sake of the business. Just can’t afford to be a charity.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
8 years 6 months ago

If you want an ethical employee, be an ethical company.

Have responsible, accessible district managers, excellent benefits, and quality merchandise.

Employees lose respect for a company when they have to fight for their benefits, or continually take back shoddy or dangerous merchandise, or find out there is graft and corruption in the upper echelon.

Max Goldberg
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Great article. The 7 highlighted points create a path for employees to enrich themselves and the companies that employ them. Few retailers follow these points, with the result being dissatisfied employees and high churn. Success will be achieved when a company has a clear core story and management that lives it.

Ian Percy
Guest
8 years 6 months ago
Well I’ve got to say this is one of the better ‘advice lists’ I’ve seen in quite a while. Most draw a ‘duh’ response. People do not go “all in” for someone else’s dream. I’ve seen so many managers over the years basically say to employees “Here’s my goal now give it everything you’ve got.” Then the employees see the manager take long lunch breaks, knock off early, lounge around talking to other managers, etc. Ryan and Ralph are right on the money on this issue. Then Paula raises a brilliant but easily missed insight. “We have to change our perspective” she says. Even here in RW we talk about “retail” this and “retail” that. Almost like “retail” is an end in itself. Well if we don’t change perspectives maybe it is an ‘end’…a dead end. What’s needed is a much higher vision – like the old story about whether you’re chipping stones or building a cathedral. Start with a discussion about how you’re making the world a better place. How you’re helping people find… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Yes employees can be taught to adopt a work ethic, but they have to want to change. As hard as it is to hire people with a work ethic, it is a lot easier to hire one then to train one to have work ethic.

When it comes to management, managers need to just practice one rule. You manage people individually not as a group. That means you manage each person the way they want to be managed and not the way you want to manage them. Not easy but effective.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
8 years 6 months ago
I’m quite torn on this post. It starts so, so badly. “Created a sense of entitlement?” I teach in a business school at a university. My students haven’t that sense – their sense is that good jobs are impossible to find – and all the promises about a college education are falling flat for them. So, they dedicate tremendous effort to a degree on the promise (it’s how degree programs are sold by politicians) that they’ll get great jobs…and then enter the job market to crickets. Commission-based scams. “Marketing” that’s really only MLM hacking. And while I’m an absolute opponent of standardized testing, it’s ABSURD to suggest it has any connection with this guy’s theory of “entitlement.” My kids feel punished and abused by the culture of 38 career-determining standardized tests within a 12 year public school period. (Thank God they are past kindergarten where new Oregon kindergarten classes spent their first 2 weeks in testing instead of figuring out how to be at school. So sad.) That said, the list of suggestions are quite… Read more »
Caitlin Kelly
Guest
Caitlin Kelly
8 years 6 months ago
I agree with Paula’s comment. There is little to motivate even the brightest, most hard-working and intrinsically motivated employee offering you their best efforts – if they are still receiving minimum to low wages, with no bonus, commission or significant boosts in pay and/or responsibility. It doesn’t really matter to your front-line sales staff – I was one for 2.5 years and wrote my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” about it (and was a speaker at RCE’s conference) – what you say to them or what your company brass needs and demands. We’ve really heard it all. The cost of living rises every year while retail associates’ wages remain extremely low and we are told – which these wages make clear – we are essentially value-less. This has less to do with someone’s “work ethic” than plain fairness. No one works very hard for very long while helping their employer earn significant, unshared profits from that labor. The less an employer financially values their staff, while demanding commitment and loyalty and terrific service… Read more »
Jeff Hall
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Success in teaching, modeling and ideally having an employee adopt a desired work ethic is ultimately proportionate to the brand/retailer’s company culture.

Companies who enjoy sustainable, lasting success (as measured by business performance, customer satisfactions, employee retention, etc.) also exhibit the strongest organizational cultures. These are the places where employees are inspired to align themselves to the underlying purpose and mission, and not by accident.

Culture includes consistent, intentional frameworks for on-boarding, training, listening to, responding to and engaging with employees on a regular basis. An overwhelming percentage of retail employees feel as though the are not recognized for their contributions, nor listened to by their managers, resulting in apathy and disengagement. This is the starting point. Employees need to recognize how they are part of a larger team and shown the importance of their role.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

The American culture of self reliance has fallen away with the younger generations. The causes are well documented.

First was the breakdown of the family. Children are simply not taught right from wrong. Further, too many children are beaten down rather than built up.

Second, the education in values fell to the church, which was ill prepared to handle it. Further, the never ending stream of abuses discredits their teachings.

Third, the teaching of self reliance fell to the education system. Here there is no interest in right and wrong, self reliance became only taking care of me. Our education system has done more harm to our future associates than good.

To date, the only approach I have seen that always works is communication, walking the talk, and sharing the success.

Lee Kent
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

The interesting thing about this article and its suggestions? They are all focused on the employee and that, IMO, is how it should be.

When you hire at minimum wage and don’t offer much more than that, the only option you have in order to motivate them is to get to know them, understand their goals, figure out how you can contribute to them, make your success their success.

Then when they move on in life, they will be taking something with them. And while they are working in your store, they will see and feel a sense of purpose.

Doug Fleener
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

I think this is a great list, but it also was just as applicable twenty years ago. I don’t see this as a generational issue, but as others have pointed out about making retail a place that people want and can work in.

I was in a small town retail store earlier this week, and the manager was telling me how poor she is. Here’s a person working full-time and she can barely provide for her family.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Is it just me, or is there something ironic about a speech bemoaning a lack of work ethics at a summit for “Fast Casual” Executives? Talk about reaping what you sow….

Shep Hyken
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

Eric Chester is one of the gurus of understanding work ethic. He has some great ideas. I think people have to have the work ethic. Managers should hire the right people to begin with. Rather than adopt a work ethic, the employee must be able to adapt their already strong work ethic to the company they work for.

Best way to motivate employees? Create a fulfilling environment, which starts by focusing on recognition and training/self-improvement.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

The sheer number of responses to this question is telling.

Paula’s right. We talk a lot about empowerment in our society, but retail jobs used to pay a living wage, and no longer do. No amount of atta-boys and inspirational lectures will change that. Until we get more serious about engaging the customer in meaningful ways, results will be disappointing.

Eric Chester
Guest
Eric Chester
8 years 6 months ago
I am new to this forum but am very impressed by the experts weighing in and the depth of the comments posted. Nate Riggs was in the audience during my presentation to these executives a few weeks ago and did a great job of capturing the essence of each of my main take-away points. However, before these actionable ideas were shared, the first third of the presentation dealt with how work ethic has changed in America and why. Who can argue that people approach their jobs with a different set of attitudes, values, and beliefs that workers of 100, 50, 20 or even 10 years ago? Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse, it just means different. And that ‘difference’ isn’t one that is confined to Millennials. Heck, there are scores of young people who exhibit an incredible work ethic and an endless supply of mature employees who display pathetic work ethic. Employers can impact the work ethic and core values of the young a lot easier than they can the not-so-young. Face it, when an employee… Read more »
William Passodelis
Guest
8 years 6 months ago

The answer is no. Please allow me some explanation….

Most people have some degree of work ethic – if only for selfish purposes. This can be recognized and nurtured and the strategies outlined are excellent – especially #6. However, if there is truly no work ethic present then I am afraid you have a frustrating and hard road to travel.

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