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When you're in a job interview, the hiring manager may ask you to describe your work ethic. This question can feel like a curveball, but it doesn't have to be.
Focus on highlighting specific examples from your work experience that showcase your positive outlook toward work and your willingness to do the right thing by your co-workers.
The way you answer this question shows interviewers what kind of employee they can expect you to be.
In this article, we'll cover what interviewers are looking for and how to formulate a good answer based on the role, company, and your work style. We'll also provide plenty of sample answers that demonstrate ideal work ethics, so you can see our advice in action.
What the interviewer wants to know when they ask you to describe your work ethic
When interviewers ask you to describe your work ethic, they're trying to gauge what kind of employee you'd be if hired and how your work could help them reach their goals. A solid work ethic means you are likely to exceed the minimum requirements of the job, complete tasks on time, and contribute to the team and wider organization.
The interviewer is trying to answer the following questions:
- Are you consistent?
- Do you hold yourself accountable?
- Are you a team player that co-workers can count on?
- Will you go the extra mile to complete important tasks on time?
- Are you a good fit for the company culture?
They want to know how much value and dedication you put into your work and whether you have a strong work ethic.
Every employer wants to hire a new employee who exceeds expectations and helps team members be more productive. Your answer to this common interview question can reveal a lot about whether you're that person.
How to answer “Describe your work ethic”
Work ethic interview questions like "Describe your work ethic" are your chance to showcase your personal work ethic. Here are some steps you should take to prepare your answer ahead of time:
1. Come up with a list of work ethic skills and traits
A good way to develop your answer is to come up with a list of skills and traits that accurately describe how you behave in a work environment. Preparing ahead of time makes it easier to answer efficiently and effectively when the time comes to respond.
Here are some example traits you might use to illustrate your value:
- Fast learning
Don't stop here. Answering the question by reciting a string of adjectives is a mistake. Like many behavioral interview questions, it's best to use the STAR method to construct a compelling story about your work ethic.
For the uninitiated, the STAR technique is a structured approach to storytelling that can help you answer behavioral interview questions by outlining the situation, task, action, and result of the situation that you're describing.
This is a powerful interview technique because humans love stories. It's one of the most powerful means that job seekers have to influence hiring managers. You're much more likely to stand out if you can tell good stories that are based around concrete examples.
2. Find situations
Now that you've decided on the traits that you want to highlight, think about situations from your prior work experience that demonstrate those traits. These are the stories that you'll want to share in your response.
Use a specific event or situation, not a generalized description of what experiences you have. Your response should provide the interviewer with enough details to understand the situation clearly. The specific situation can be from a previous job, volunteer role, or any relevant work experience.
If you’re struggling to come up with situations, use these questions as prompts:
- How do I like to be managed?
- What is my greatest achievement?
- What type of work environment do I thrive in?
- How do I approach challenges at work?
- How do I get motivated?
- How do I learn new things?
These questions should help you think through your experiences and how you work. For example, if you prefer to be loosely managed, it probably means that you’re confident in your ability to make decisions and drive projects forward.
Likewise, if your greatest achievement came from putting in a few extra hours, then you’d probably describe yourself as diligent and driven.
Another idea that may be helpful is to think about the compliments you've received from co-workers or managers in the past and the situations that caused them to compliment you.
Remember, you always want to relate a trait or skill to an anecdote or story when answering behavioral interview questions.
3. Explain your tasks
After you've shared a specific situation with the hiring manager, you'll want to outline what you were tasked with or the goals you were working towards, then speak to how it relates to your work ethic. For example, you might share a situation where you were tasked with shipping a new product feature by the following sprint.
The most important thing to remember is that you want to share a specific situation and related task so your interviewer has the context they need.
4. Describe the actions you took
By now the interviewer should understand the situation and task. Now it's time to talk about the actions you took. For example, if you volunteered to work overtime to complete the feature by the following sprint, you might outline the amount of overtime you worked, why you decided to volunteer, and what you did to get it across the line.
Describing the actions you took connects your work ethic to the specific situation and shows the interviewer that you know the value you can bring to the company.
5. Show your results
Describe the outcome of the actions and don't be shy. Take credit for your achievements. What happened? What metrics were improved? How did your customers react to the new feature? What did you learn? Make sure your story contains multiple positive results.
By answering behavioral and situational interview questions with the STAR technique, you help the hiring manager tie your actions to your work ethic by providing a focused answer in a digestible but compelling story.
Examples of the best answers
Sample answer #1: Positivity and learning on the job
"I'm an enthusiastic, positive worker, who is dedicated to completing tasks and I don't complain about the process. Here's a good example.
We had to switch to remote work during the COVID pandemic when I worked at Atlassian. My task was to continue to manage my team and ship new features as everyone transitioned to WFH. I read a lot of books like High Output Management and read guides on managing remote teams and running remote one-on-ones.
By the end, everyone preferred remote work and my team's productivity improved."
Why it works: This answer shows the candidate's personality and ability to learn new things under pressure. Any company seeking an upbeat, positive manager who can learn on the job would be delighted by this response.
Sample answer #2: Hard work and stakeholder management
"I know this is a bit cliché, but I love hard work. There's nothing quite like seeing a project be completed on time.
In my past role at Canva, I was a project manager and was tasked with turning a slow-moving project around. I talked to the relevant stakeholders to understand the current situation and found out that the teams simply didn't have enough headcount.
I then spoke to senior leadership, got the team's additional headcount, and we completed the project a few weeks ahead of schedule."
Why it works: The candidate has shown that they're aware that saying they like to work hard isn't enough and have gone the extra mile to highlight a situation where they turned a project around. Added points for engaging with the relevant stakeholders and senior management.
Example answer #3: Attention to detail
"At my previous role at Alan, email open rates had dropped dramatically and a large number of emails weren't being delivered. My task was to improve deliverability.
I read hundreds of our old emails and noticed that our subject lines were generic and unvarying and that we didn't have an email sunsetting policy, so I introduced A/B tested subject lines and removed inactive contacts after a month. I also found that there were typos in a few of them, about 5%.
The result was an improvement in open rate from 10% to 40% in two months and deliverability improved by 100%.
Why it works: This is a fantastic answer. They've outlined a very specific problem, shown their attention to detail through their meticulous work and ability to remember specific numbers, and made the value that they can provide very clear.
Tips for giving the best answer to “Describe your work ethic”
- Practice: Practice really does make perfect. Even if you’re aware of the STAR method, you’ll still be better prepared if you have a few answers ahead of time.
- Provide details: Part of answering this question well is being able to provide specific details. If you give a trait and then a very surface-level story, then it may come across as a red flag to recruiters that you don’t have the experience or you’re not particularly strong in the area. At best, you’ll come across as a poor communicator.
- Be specific: Provide examples that illustrate your work ethic, not adjectives.
- Be concise: Succinct answers are more memorable and save time for other common interview questions that could come up. Share examples without giving too much background detail.
- Focus on the job you’re interviewing for: Showcase qualities that are valued by the job at hand. Read the job description carefully and research the company, its culture, and its values. The time you invest into this will help you highlight the qualities that make you uniquely suited to the job and company that you’re applying for.
Mistakes to avoid when answering “Describe your work ethic”
Regarding questions related to a strong work ethic, there are things that you should avoid. Your goal is to showcase that you have a good work ethic that the potential employer is looking for in new hires.
Avoid these mistakes if you want to come up with the best answer:
- Not practicing your answer: Even if you’re an excellent communicator and can think on your feet, it’s always better to practice your answer beforehand. Practice will allow you to tighten up your language and deliver a memorable and concise answer during your interview.
- Over-exaggerating: Give an accurate account of your experience and how you performed. Telling the truth will make it far easier to answer any follow-up questions the interviewer may have and means your answers will reflect what your references will tell them as well.
- Relying on adjectives alone: Throwing out a bunch of adjectives, even if they apply to you, won’t help your case. People need stories, otherwise, they'll struggle to remember your answer.
- Clichés: Are you a hard worker? Self-motivated? Good at time management? These are phrases that hiring managers hear all the time, it’s best to avoid them or only use them if you can tie them back to a great story.
- Dishonesty: Lying is a bad idea during interviews. And the truth will come out when the hiring manager checks your references anyway.
- Negativity: Always be positive in job interviews. If you are going to use a situation where something went wrong, make sure to tie it back to how your work ethic turned the situation into a good one.
Possible follow-up questions
- Do you have any questions for me? Read our guide on the best questions to ask in an interview.
- Why are you interested in this position?
- What are your career goals?
- What makes you unique?
- What can you contribute to this company? This question is similar to "Why do you want to work here?" And will only be asked as a follow-up if you weren't able to articulate your value in your answer.
- Any number of behavioral interview questions. Be sure to use the STAR method when answering.
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