A New Work Ethic
CASE 4.4 A New Work Ethic?
You would think that employees would do something if they discovered that a customer had died on the
premises. But that’s not necessarily so, according to the Associated Press, which reported that police
discovered the body of a trucker in a tractor trailer rig that had sat— with its engine running— in the
parking lot of a fast- food restaurant for nine days. Employees swept the parking lot around the truck
but ignored the situation for over a week until the stench got so bad that someone finally called the
police. That lack of response doesn’t surprise James Sheehy, a human resources manager in Houston, who
spent his summer vacation working undercover at a fast- food restaurant owned by a relative. 84
Introduced to coworkers as a management trainee from another franchise location who was being
brought in to learn the ropes, Sheehy was initially viewed with some suspicion, but by the third day the
group had accepted him as just another employee. Sheehy started out as a maintenance person and
gradually rotated through various cooking and cleaning assign-ments before ending up as a cashier
behind the front counter. Most of Sheehy’s fellow employees were teenagers and col-lege students who
were home for the summer and earning additional spending money. Almost half came from upper-income
families and the rest from middle- income neighbor-hoods. More than half were women, and a third were
minorities. What Sheehy reports is a whole generation of workers with a frightening new work ethic:
contempt for customers, indiffer-ence to quality and service, unrealistic expectations about the world
of work, and a get- away- with- what- you- can get-away-with-what-you-can attitude. Surveys show that
employee theft is on the rise throughout the businessworld. 85 Sheehy’s experience was in line with this.
He writes that the basic work ethic at his place of employment was a type of gamesmanship that
focused on milking the place dry. Theft was rampant, and younger employees were subject to peer
pressure to steal as a way of becoming part of the group. “ It don’t mean nothing,” he says, was the
basic rationale for dis-honesty. “ Getting on with getting mine” was another common phrase, as
coworkers carefully avoided hard work or dragged out tasks like sweeping to avoid additional
assignments. All that customer service meant was getting rid of people as fast as possible and with the
least possible effort. Sometimes, however, service was deliberately slowed or drive- through orders
intentionally switched in order to cause customers to demand to see a manager. This was called “
baiting the man,” or purposely trying to provoke a response from management. In fact, the general
attitude toward managers was one of disdain and contempt. In the eyes of the employees, supervisors
were only paper- pushing functionaries who got in the way. Sheehy’s coworkers rejected the very idea of
hard work and long hours. “ Scamming” was their ideal. Treated as a kind of art form and as an accepted
way of doing business, scamming meant taking shortcuts or getting something done without much
effort, usually by having someone else do it. “ You only put in the time and effort for the big score” is
how one fellow worker char-acterized the work ethic he shared with his peers. “ You got to just cruise
through the job stuff and wait to make the big score,” said another. “ Then you can hustle. The office
stuff is for buying time or paying for the groceries.” By contrast, they looked forward to working “ at a
real job where you don’t have to put up with hassles.” “ Get out of school and you can leave this to the
real dummies.” “ Get an office and a computer and a secretary and you can scam your way through
anything.” On the other hand, these young employees believed that most jobs were like the fast- food
industry: automated, boring, undemanding and unsatisfying, and dominated by diffi-cult people. Still,
they dreamed of an action- packed business world, an image shaped by a culture of video games and
action movies. The college students in particular, reports Sheehy, believed that a no- holds- barred,
trample- over- anybody, get-what- you- want approach is the necessary and glamorous road to success.
1. How typical are the attitudes that Sheehy reports? Does his description of a new work ethic tally
with your own experiences?
2. What are the implications for the future of American busi-ness of the work ethic Sheehy describes?
3. Some might discount Sheehy’s experiences either as being the product of one particular industry or
as simply reflecting the immaturity of young employees. Would you agree?
4. Is it reasonable to expect workers, especially in a capitalist society, to be more devoted to their
jobs, more concerned with quality and customer service, than Sheehy’s coworkers were? What explains
5. In what ways does the culture of our capitalist society encourage attitudes like those Sheehy
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