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How to Hire Millennials Who Actually Have High Work Ethic

November 15, 2016

millennials-work-ethic.jpgIn previous blogs, Select International writers have written about tips to understand millennials, tips for interviewing millennials, and how to find employees with strong work ethic. Now let’s tie these three articles together to give you an edge for hiring millennials with a strong work ethic.

Work ethic can be defined as setting high standards for one’s own work rather than solely following those that are expected. It shines through when demonstrating a commitment to and pride in one’s work by working diligently to complete tasks and achieve goals.

There is a debate currently taking place that argues whether or not millennials are higher or lower in work ethic compared to past generations. In an article by Sanjeev Agrawal, he states that millennials are actually the best workers.

In a rebuttal by Jean M Twenge, Ph.D., she argues that millennials actually have a lower average work ethic compared to other generations. Her evidence is from a study done by a University of Michigan project called “Monitoring the Future”. In this study, they surveyed half a million high school students starting in 1976. The seniors answered several questions about their future. In three questions relating to work ethic, millennials had the highest percentage of individuals that didn’t want to work hard and would not want to work if they had enough money. They also answered with the lowest percentage for those who were willing to work overtime. The other two groups in the survey are boomers and generation X.

My focus is not to declare that millennials are lazy, but rather to show that there could be generational differences that HR departments around the globe should be aware of and should plan accordingly.

In the selection process, there are many ways to try to measure whether an applicant will be a good fit or not. While strong work ethic may be an important part of the equation, hopefully it is not the only competency to decide if a candidate is a good fit. Typically, there are many skills and abilities that feed into a final consideration for an applicant receiving the job offer. Maybe work ethic is a competency that is more desirable for a particular job. Your selection process should be customized based on the job you are filling.

Let’s break down the selection process into three parts and see where we can better identify those with strong work ethic:

  1. Pre-Screening

  2. Employment Testing

  3. Interviewing

Work Ethic in Pre-Screening

This part of the process is typically focused on the minimum requirements for the position and the big deal breakers. Questions you might ask at this point are, “Are you willing to relocate?” or “Do you have at least 3 years of experience in manufacturing?”.

However, some questions that you might ask at this stage that target minimum requirements of the position can also relate to work ethic. Some examples of these types of questions include:

  • Are you willing to work overtime?

  • Are you willing to work weekends?

  • Are you willing to work holidays?

Note that any questions that you utilize in the screening process should be clearly tied to requirements for successful job performance. This is important both for sake of selecting candidates that will be most successful on the job as well as for legal defensibility of your selection process.

Work Ethic in Employment Testing

Depending on the selection assessment(s) you use for a particular hiring process, you can take advantage of a scoring formula that will allow individuals to score lower on less important competencies while needing to maintain higher scores on more important competencies, like work ethic. If you are using a selection assessment, you should always make sure that all competencies are related to job performance.

This can be done through a job analysis. If work ethic is found to be a competency of high importance for the job, then you can customize the scoring of your assessment depending on which assessment you use.

For example, there are assessments that allow you to customize scoring so that each competency can receive a different minimum score. In this case, each competency is made up of multiple items derived from diverse scoring methods (e.g., self-report personality items, situational judgment, etc.). Examples of work ethic items in an assessment are:

  • I enjoy working on difficult tasks.

  • Other people would describe me as a hard worker.

  • I like to work hard.

These items coupled with many other items have proven to show reliability and validity for Select International’s assessments. Using this approach, you can select for individuals that score higher in work ethic while still selecting high scorers for other important competencies.

Work Ethic in Interviewing

In the interview process, you can further identify strengths or weaknesses in the area of work ethic. If a competency, such as work ethic, is of particular importance for a position, you will probably want to measure it in multiple different stages in the hiring process. In the interview, you can ask questions that elicit behavioral examples of how the candidate responded to situations in the past. In the case of measuring work ethic in the interview, you could ask questions related to past situations that called for the display of work ethic. Examples of such questions could be:

  • Give an example of when you completed a difficult task that made you work harder than normal.

  • Describe a time when you were asked to work overtime and you did not receive any additional compensation.

  • Tell me about a time when you were proud of how hard you worked on a project.

When asking these types of interview questions, be sure to gather full details regarding the behavioral example, including the background of the situation, the actions the candidate took, and the end results in that situation. Gathering complete behavioral examples will often require skillful use of probing questions during the interview. For additional tips on hiring millennials with strong work ethic during the interview process, check out this blog.

Whether or not there are actual generational differences in work ethic remains up for debate. Regardless of whether these differences exist, if work ethic is important for successful performance in a target position, then it’s important to measure it effectively in your selection process.


Trevor McGlochlin Trevor McGlochlin is a Research Consultant at PSI. He leads the Financial and Automotive verticals within R&D. He earned a Master of Science degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Florida Institute of Technology. His areas of expertise include selection, employee turnover, organizational development, applied research, and statistical analyses. His analysis work is centered around validation, adverse impact, turnover analyses, assessment scoring, and other data analysis.