6 Ways to Spot a Strong Work Ethic

It all comes down to dedication, responsibility, and enthusiasm.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on May. 25, 2022
6 Ways to Spot a Strong Work Ethic

Tech is an industry built on passion. It’s what sparks creative ideas to solve big problems in areas like climate research and healthcare. But passion and ideas need to get off the ground, and that comes from having a strong work ethic. So how do you find a team that’s dedicated and hard working?

Building a successful startup is a company-wide effort and everyone involved needs to be optimistic, motivated and passionate about the work. A strong work ethic is made up of a combination of dedication and reliability, as well as accountability, responsibility and enthusiasm. 

What is a Strong Work Ethic?

An employee with a strong work ethic is highly productive. They are proud of their work and feel connected to the company’s mission. Plus, they work well with their team and take ownership of mistakes. Reliability, accountability, passion and drive are all elements of a strong work ethic.

In Rashim Mogha’s eyes, it’s the most important trait an employee should have. It doesn’t matter what school they went to or what their certifications are — if they don’t have a strong work ethic, they won’t make a good hire. 

“I have never hired employees for their degrees or past companies they worked for,” said Mogha, the general manager of leadership and business at Boston-based e-learning company Skillsoft. “I’ve hired them for their experiences, thought processes, skills and their mindsets of continuous learning.” 

Recognizing the signs of a strong work ethic is crucial to making good, lasting recruiting decisions. Here’s what to look for in a candidate.


Go Above and Beyond

A candidate who has a strong work ethic will do more than what’s expected of them. It’s important to hire someone who can go with the flow and sustain the constant change. Someone who demonstrates a healthy work ethic will enthusiastically reprioritize projects in order to hit goals and ask the right questions about the next steps. They’ll also be able to follow through on action items and find fulfillment in their work.

“I think if you’ve got a strong work ethic, you have a high level of passion for your work,” said Britteny Soto, director of DEI and talent acquisition at Indianapolis-based environmental compliance tech company Encamp. “Those are the people that are going to treat your business like their own.”

“Hearing how they solved a problem and worked through the challenges can tell you a lot about the person and what motivates them.”

If an employee or candidate consistently treats extra tasks like a chore, or refuses to take them on, you could be looking at someone who isn’t happy in their role or might not be a good fit for the role. As long as your additional tasks are reasonable and within the scope of the role, employees should have a positive mindset.

“[In interviews] I like asking questions about when they went above and beyond the call of duty to please a customer,” said Corey Berkey, SVP of people and talent at Boston-based recruiting technology company Employ. “Hearing how they solved a problem and worked through the challenges can tell you a lot about the person and what motivates them.”

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The Is Glass Half Full

Attitudes are contagious. When employees are content, they do better work. On the flipside, when employees have a consistently negative outlook, their work and their team’s work will take a hit. Productivity increases too. Folks that are happy in their jobs are 12 percent more productive, according to research from the University of Warwick. 

“I do believe in the power of positivity and that negative emotions suck people down,” said Mogha. “When we are dealing with so much around us, we want to make sure that we are lifting each other up, as opposed to pulling each other down.”

Mogha notes that she’s specifically referring to employee attitudes toward work itself. If there is employee dissatisfaction around culture toxicity or exclusivity that’s a problem leadership needs to address.

“There’s a conversation happening around how people of color have for so long assumed positive intent around things they shouldn’t have,” Mogha said. “So when I say people should assume positive intent, I mean it from a business and strategic viewpoint.” 


Respect for Others

For the most part, working alone in an isolated cubicle is a thing of the past. Around three quarters of employees say collaboration is crucial to their team’s success and companies that support teamwork can cut their turnover rates in half, according to research from Zippia. The ability to work together successfully and efficiently is an essential element of a strong work ethic. That’s a quality recruiters should be looking for when scouting new talent.

“I think you can be a strong worker without having a particularly good work ethic,” said Soto. “You may be killing it and hitting your numbers, but you also might be cutting corners, stepping over people and throwing team members under the bus.”

An employee that can’t play well with others may cause conflict and tension within their team, which can hurt the camaraderie at your company. An interview is a short time to try to root out someone’s collaboration and peer negotiation skills, but it’s possible to get a sense for how they work with others, Mogha said. 

“I ask people to tell me about a difficult stakeholder they had to deal with,” she said. “Do they show an appreciation for diversity of thought, or do they just say that the person was a total jerk that they didn’t want to work with? For me, a strong work ethic means there’s mutual respect and openness to different perspectives.”

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Own Failure

Everyone runs into setbacks or failure at some point — even your company’s strongest performers. Effective employees can’t be successful 100 percent of the time, but they don’t let failure go to waste.

“I would like to call all my projects successful, but there’s always a phase in those projects that could have gone wrong,” said Mogha. “Seeing points of failures as learning opportunities, and [sharing] how you turned them around, really tells me how you’re going to operate.”

Pay attention to how a potential employee describes past challenges. It could reveal new insights about their character. If they refuse to take ownership, point fingers or downplay the impacts of their actions, those are major red flags. You likely can’t trust them to take accountability if similar situations arise on your team, said Daniel Phelps, head of global talent acquisition at San Francisco-based SaaS company Genesys

“[I ask for] an example of a time their values were tested, and what they did,” he said. “You’re going to listen for things like empathy, and whether they’re able to listen and grow from that experience.”


Focused on Growth

An employee with a strong work ethic knows that learning is a lifelong process. They’ll want to take every chance possible to improve and learn new skills. Good employees aren’t focused only on the tasks right in front of them. They’re looking into the future, making plans for their professional progress and growing alongside the company

“If someone says, ‘That’s not my role, that’s not my work to do,’ you know that’s someone that doesn’t have a particularly strong work ethic.”

“When you see someone that cuts corners, or feels like the work is beneath them, thats a red flag,” said Soto. “If someone says, ‘That’s not my role, that’s not my work to do,’ you know that’s someone that doesn’t have a particularly strong work ethic.”

Promotions are one of the most telltale signs that someone is committed to growing their career. But there are also more subtle clues that signify a growth mindset. In interviews, Mogha likes to ask candidates about something new they learned in the prior three months. If they can answer that question confidently and in detail, she knows they’ll bring a similar enthusiasm for learning to the job.

“I remember asking a candidate this way back when, and she told me she was learning podcasting skills,” Mogha said. “That had nothing to do with the role that I was hiring for, but told me that she was able to think outside the box, and was willing to learn something new.”

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Proud of Accomplishments

Arrogance is its own issue, but so is apathy. Those that feel pride in their work naturally want to do well and bring their best performance to their role. Ask candidates about past awards or other forms of recognition they’ve received. Do they perk up and share what those awards meant to them? If so, they probably have the motivation to reach new milestones with your team.

“I interviewed an intern candidate not too long ago, and she was extremely happy to talk about her accomplishments,” said Phelps. “She just lit up. [I knew] she was going to be great, because she’s going to want to do a good job and she’ll be excited to show up.”

Meeting expectations is one thing. A strong work ethic is something entirely different. Those who have it don’t just get work done — they’re happy to do it and bring passion to everything they do.

“Passion is critical,” Berkey said. “You have to believe in what you’re doing to find true happiness and motivation. A strong work ethic will follow.”