Reliability: Here’s Why It’s One of the Key Elements to a Strong Work Ethic

By Eric Chester

“Capability doesn’t have anything to do with reliability. Some people don’t have as much capability as others have, but they make up for their lack by being reliable.”  — John Wooden

On the evening of April 17, 1973, 14 Dassault ­Falcon 20s owned by a little-known start-up company took off from Memphis International Airport and successfully delivered 186 packages to 25 U.S. cities by the following morning.

An idea that had first taken root eight years earlier in a term paper by a Yale University student now had taken flight across the darkened American skies. Eventually it reshaped an industry and set the standard for one of the most important goals of every business in the world — reliability.

Reliability and work ethic

Federal Express, the brainchild of Fred Smith, grew into a billion-dollar freight shipping business by making and keeping its promise to deliver each pack-age “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Smith launched the overnight package industry on a single (and simple) promise that came to permeate the industry — unconditional reliability — and business leaders, understanding the importance of reliability, loved it.

Indeed, nothing is more basic, more foundational to business, than reliability. And nothing is more basic or more foundational to work ethic.

Brands rise and fall on reliability. We want the Chick-fil-A sandwich we buy in Birmingham to taste like the one we had in Boise. We want the watch we wear to tell us it’s 5:19 p.m. when it is in fact 5:19 p.m. We want the email we send to show up within seconds in the recipient’s inbox. We want our car to start when we turn (or push) the ignition — not every fourth time, but every single time. And if these things don’t deliver on their promise, then we deem them unreliable and look for something we can rely on to replace them.

That’s why brands spend so much time, effort, and money trying to convince us that we can always count on them. Indeed, reliability is central to just about every advertising message you’ve ever heard. Look at the promises of reliability in renowned advertising slogans like “It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking” (Timex), “It Keeps Going and Going and Going . . .” (Energizer), “It’s Everywhere You Want to Be” (Visa), and “A Diamond Is Forever” (De Beers).

Whether overtly or subtly, all brands make a promise: you can count on me to snap, crackle, and pop; to provide relief from indigestion; to taste good; to earn you money on your investments; to provide high performance; to deliver your package overnight.

If the brand delivers on the promise, it grows and thrives in the marketplace. If it fails, it suffers. And if it fails consistently, it dies.

Toyota became the envy of the auto industry by producing vehicles that delivered reliability. At one point, the automaker used the slogan, “The best-built cars in the world.” And it lived up to that promise by churning out reasonably priced, nice-looking cars that got good gas mileage and didn’t cost much to maintain.

Then, in 2009, reports surfaced that some Toyota models had problems with their brakes. Not only that, but the company appeared slow in addressing the problems. Toyota’s reputation for reliability took a hit in the marketplace, and it had to regroup and begin reproving itself to the car-­buying public.

Reliability and the Brand of Me

What holds true for automakers, investment counselors, restaurants, and overnight delivery services also holds true for people. Brands, products, services, and businesses aren’t just the things we purchase or the companies from which we purchase them. They are the people behind the products and services; the people within the businesses; the people who make things and provide services. The flaw in any failed brand, product, service, or business, in fact, almost always points back to the people who developed, made, marketed, sold, or serviced it.

There is no business owner, leader, or manager in the world who wouldn’t want his workers to consis-tently live up to the FedEx promise — that when it absolutely, positively has to get done, they will get it done. He wants them there and ready to work when they’re schedule to be there.

We all understand that nobody is perfect, but in-stilling reliability into your young hires isn’t about trying to make them perfect. It’s about instilling within them the importance of consistently making every possible effort and going all out to deliver what is expected of them on schedule, every time.

Very few businesses — none that I can think of — can survive (much less thrive) with employees who consistently prove themselves unreliable. We want workers we can count on to show up on time and prepared to do their work, whether they will be supervised or not.

Like a FedEx package, they arrive on time, but not just physically. They arrive mentally ready to do the job. They arrive with their heads in the game. If they are supposed to arrive with a brief or a completed project, they have it. And they deliver over and over and over throughout their shifts.

That’s reliability, and if your people are deficient in this area, it doesn’t much matter how great their workplace performance is; their value to you is greatly diminished.

The struggle against developing reliable employees

Unfortunately, reliability has become a “yeah but” value among many Americans. It’s one of those things we not only expect but demand from others while excusing ourselves from the pesky little responsibilities it might bring our way.

“You were five minutes late. Again.”

“Yeah, but it was only five minutes. And I caught some bad traffic, you know? Besides, what’s the big deal? You act like I’m the second gunman on the grassy knoll, for crying out loud. It’s just five minutes, dude.”

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“You didn’t complete the report.”

“Yeah, but this is the first time in the last three weeks I didn’t get it in on time. I’ve been way more consistent about getting mine in than Alex has. So before you get all up in my grill, go ask him if he’s got his.”

People who use this type of argument have likely been raised to believe that a good excuse can get them out of any situation, that authority figures rarely follow through on threats, and that citing examples of others who’ve also been irresponsible will make their actions less noticeable.

Many parents perpetuate the myth that individualism trumps responsibility, which is why employers hear a lot of the “I’m really a night person, so you shouldn’t expect me to make it to work that early in the morning” and “I’m known for arriving fashionably late, and the party never starts without me” comments from young workers.

And for individuals whose primary lifeline is self-esteem, apologies become an appeasement rather than an expression of sorrow or regret. “I’m sorry you feel that way” and “I’m sorry you were disappointed” take the place of “I was wrong and I’ll make sure it never happens again. Please forgive me.”

Getting up later? Better tell the farm animals

There has also been a societal trend to water down standards for absenteeism. A Harris Interactive survey in 2010, for instance, found that 57 percent of salaried employees say they take sick days when they aren’t really sick.

Calling in sick when you don’t feel like going to work has become so commonplace that no one gives it much thought anymore: “Yeah, the fish looked like they were biting, so I took a sick day.” There’s a word for taking a sick day when you aren’t really sick: cheating. But we’ve come to embrace any excuse as an acceptable one, and the more lenient and accepting we’ve become as a culture of excuses, the more young people have pushed the limits.

There is also a growing movement to let kids get up later, because this theoretically helps their bodies perform better. Some school districts, in fact, are setting back start times for middle school through high school.

“Teenagers are biologically programmed to prefer a later bedtime and a later wake-up time, so it is not surprising that they struggle with early school start times,” Dr. Heidi V. Connolly, chief of the division of pediatric sleep medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, said in a July 2010 article by HealthDay.

There’s been a lot of research on this and much debate. And even though some of the evidence is compelling, I remain unconvinced. I believe that many parents have grown weary of their teens whining about bedtimes and are looking for justification to throw up the white flag.

Have teens’ bodies suddenly changed? Are farmers able to get the chickens, pigs, and cows to sleep in until their kids are ready to feed them? Do you think students in India and China are watching Hulu until all hours of the night and sleeping the day away?

Me neither. Old Ben Franklin wasn’t blowing smoke when he penned that “early to bed, early to rise” rap. And I bet he didn’t write it at 2:00 a.m.

Excerpted with permission from Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce, by Eric Chester. Copyright 2012 by Eric Chester. For copies, visit Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at and follow him at @eric_chester


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