We are like this only...

India at work

We are like this only...

Since we spend the best years of our life working, it is but important that certain unwritten rules and regulations be woven into the fabric of work. However, it is a known and accepted fact that work ethics in Indian culture is abysmal,writes Dorothy Victor, wondering why finding passion in work is lacking amongst our countrymen.

The well-known, notorious cliché, “When the cats are away the mice will play,” might have originated from the Latin, “Dum felis dormit, mus gaudet et exsi litantro” (when the cat falls asleep, the mouse rejoices and leaps from the hole), but it could not be more relevant today in the Indian context. Dissatisfied bosses, betrayed supervisors, frustrated superiors and a good many number in authorities resonate with the sentiment that their workforce at any point in time fall short of complying with what professionals allude to as “work ethics”. 

Work ethics, in simple parlance, refers to a set of unwritten rules and regulations that ought to govern the behaviour of people at work.  Man, with his multi-personality and double standards, chooses to apply one set of rules to his personal life and another, many a time, completely contradictory, set of rules to his professional life. This syndrome is particularly more pronounced in the Indian culture because work ethics, as a philosophy, originated from the West and spread from Europe to America via groups like the French Huguenots and the English Puritans. 

The culture of putting good ethical values at work became a regular feature as early as the 18th century in the western world, a period where such lofty ideals were unheard of in the Indian context. The Western Industrial Revolution of 19th century further strengthened the idea of work ethics for better industrial outputs. In the ensuing 20th century, the world wars brought the industrial workers and bosses in the western world together with common goals and motives towards mutual prosperity. The idea of work ethics was also endorsed and promoted in a big way in the West by renowned leaders and thinkers.

 For instance, Benjamin Franklin often wrote about using time wisely and appealed to workers to diligently apply it to work before pleasure. Work ethics gradually became integrated into the working life of the common man in the West. Unfortunately for us, Indians, being predominately an agrarian economy, work ethics never really caught on as a way of working and it would not be an exaggeration to say that today our Indian culture just does not have any work ethics ingrained in its system.All play & no work... Smith died and regained consciousness in the next world. He looked out over a vast expanse of pleasant country. After resting comfortably for a while in a delightful spot, he began to get a little bored. He called out, “Is there anybody here?”

An attendant, appropriately dressed in white, appeared and said gravely, “What do you want?” “What can I have?” asked Smith gingerly. “Whatever you want,” came the reply. “May I have something to eat?” Smith requested. They brought him delicious dishes, even the things he liked best on earth. Smith was having a wonderful time eating, sleeping, and calling for more good things.

But presently, he wanted something more. He called for games. They came in profusion. Then he called for books and read with excitement and pleasure. He called for anything that struck his fancy and received it in abundant measure. But, at last, boredom caught up with him and he shouted, “I want something to do!”

The attendant appeared and said, “I am sorry, but that is the only thing we cannot give you here.” By this time, Smith was frantic for something to do, and in his terrible frustration cried out, “I’m sick and tired of everything here; I would rather go to hell!”“Where do you think you are?” asked the attendant with a smirk. 

Culture & ethics 

The importance of work in a man’s life is paramount. As is obvious from the above story, man can stay long, devoid of many necessities and wants in life. But without something to do, without work to keep him preoccupied, man could reach the end of his sanity. Having something to do and doing it to the best of his ability gives man his place in society. Work defines his purpose in life. It fills his days with a reason to get up at the crack of dawn. It gives meaning and mission in his life. Work, thus, is a vital part and parcel of humanity. So much so that in the end men are shaped by the work they do. John Ruskin rightly said, “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” 

Work ethics then plays a predominant part as a philosophy of life due to the supreme position work has in the life of the human race. As most people spend a sizeable part of their day (and lifetime) at work, it is but important that certain basic code of conduct be woven into the fabric of work. This will ensure order and harmony in the workplace. The harmonious atmosphere thus established becomes that eternal spring from which will flow rewards for personal and institutional development.

It’s a way of life 

Universal values, age-old virtues, contemporary principles and sundry other ground rules that contribute towards a good working environment together make up the work ethics of a business enterprise. It includes strong ideals such as integrity, loyalty and honesty; it contains compelling principles such as punctuality, single-minded focus, personal drive, individual motivation, team spirit and sincerity. It embraces moral codes such as empathy, tolerance, kindness and broadmindedness.   

Work ethics can be said to be inclusive rather than exclusive. It is intrinsic and not extrinsic. It cannot be taught, bought, borrowed or imitated. It has to be imbibed, cultivated, internalised and practiced. It is not a one-time affair. It is a repetitive, on-going, day-to-day project. It is not optional. It is obligatory. It is not a mere routine. It is an attitude. It involves every individual, employee, employer and others associated with the enterprise. It exists at the micro and the macro level of the organisation. It is a force, a power, an energy, a way of working. It is, in short, a philosophy and a creed at the workplace. Where it exists, there is magic in the air that sets into motion rippling effects of productivity, prosperity and bonhomie. Its absence breeds sluggishness, stagnation and bitterness.

In fact, it is much like what management experts refer to as the ‘hygiene factor’ in an organisation. When health, hygiene and safety standards are exemplary in an organisation, they are seldom noticed, and do not form part of the motivating factors for better employee productivity. However, when these parameters are absent, they become a great source of dissatisfaction. Similarly, work ethics, as a culture at the workplace, is something that may not necessarily be taken much notice of. It is only in their absence that they are felt to be wanting. 

When, as a culture, the following are present in copious flow, there is clearly a lack of any ethics at work — arriving late to work, fudging bills, tampering with the cash box, participating in grapevine, hostile attitude, refusing to go the extra mile at work, lack of enthusiasm for the job on hand, indulging in time wasting activities, using office facilities for personal purposes, being non co-operative with colleagues, throwing temper tantrums at work, apathy towards co-workers and all other forms of attitudes and activities at work that undermine credibility and accountability of employees, collectively point to a culture that has no work ethics at play.

It is a known and accepted fact that work ethics in Indian culture is abysmal. We show much of our apathetic attitude, hypocritical belief system and casual approach to the way we conduct our private lives to our work culture as well.
 The culture of following the infamous IST or the Indian stretchable time in our personal lives is religiously applied to work situations as well. Coming late to work is something that is not even considered unethical. It is the norm, an accepted way to start the day at work. This is in stark contrast to the culture in most other countries that believe, when office starts at 9 am, arriving to work at exactly 9 am is late; the employee is expected to be there well before that time to facilitate him to get ready for the day and start work at 9 am.  

Perception matters  

A close friend of mine once confessed that she would find her project co-ordinator engrossed in a game of ‘Solitaire’ nine out of the ten times she walked into his cabin during work hours. Extending lunch hours, taking longer tea and smoking breaks, having long personal phone conversations during office hours, displaying poor civic sense at work, disorganisation and permitting a hundred distractions during the day at work, together make our work culture repugnant.

Yet, these are only the trivial offences. More condemnable offences such as tampering with accounts, having a hand in the till, using office amenities freely for personal ends, gossip that tarnishes the image of others at work and such other grave offences are committed in the normal course of the day by an average Indian employee without batting an eyelid.

Work ethics is lacking in the Indian culture primarily because of the distorted perception a common man has towards his work. The parable of the “three stonecutters” illustrates how the right perception to work contributes towards the best effort to the work on hand.

A traveller passing a town once came across three stonecutters grinding at their work. He stopped to ask them what they were doing. The first replied that he was the most miserable person on earth and that he has the hardest job in the world. “Everyday I have to move around huge stones to make a living. I toil under the scorching heat day in and out. My back hurts, and at the end of the day, what I get is barely enough to eat.”

The second one did not complain and was focused on his work. When the traveller asked him what he was doing, the stonecutter replied, “I’m earning a living by doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county. Though the work is hard, I’m satisfied with what I do and I earn enough to feed my family.” 

When the traveller met the third stonecutter, he noticed that the stonecutter had sweat and dust on him, but he looked happy and was singing a cheerful song. The traveller was astonished and asked, “What are you doing?” The stonecutter looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “Can’t you see? I am building a cathedral!”


Our attitude towards our work can make all the difference in the right work ethics. Unfortunately, we Indians rank very low in attitudes and outlooks. We lack a sense of belonging or contribution to the organisation in the larger picture. Most employees look at their work as just jobs. They do not perceive it as a privilege to be part of a larger plan and goal. The result is that we are sloppy and laid-back with no pride or joy in what we do or contribute.

Martin Luther King Jr eloquently advised his countrymen years back, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep the street even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well’.” Such a philosophy never figures in the Indian work context.

Work ethics & you

Work ethics ultimately involves attitude, behaviour, respect, communication and interaction. It demonstrates many things that we want to see in others around us. It revolves around how a person is at work even when no one is watching him. “It breaks down to what one does or would do in a particular situation. It involves what is right and acceptable, and above board, versus what is wrong, underhanded and under the table.”

Work ethics, therefore, is something that can never be someone else’s job. It has to start and end with each individual. “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” said the great philosopher Aristotle. “To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity,” confirmed Douglas Adams.  

Work ethics must be a religion at workplace. And yet many among us who value the right ethics at work are often demoralised by a system that shows indifference towards good ethical values at work. 

Consequently, we fall back on our ideologies. But then, as Oprah Winfrey put it, “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” Work ethics, though a collective term, then boils down to an individual level. For, each employee contributing on an individual level makes up the culture on an organisational level.

An advertisement for a multinational conglomerate sums it up neatly, “Doctrines, manifestos, laws, declarations, codes of ethics. Ever since people have been able to communicate, they have compiled words to live by. But the world is still troubled.
 Take these words: honesty, workmanship, ambition, faith, education, charity, responsibility, courage. Chances are, four-and-a-half billion people won’t agree to live their lives by them. But think how much better your life would be if just one person does. You!”

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