Demystifying the Portland Work Ethic

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Demystifying the Portland Work Ethic

Over the last 20 years, I’ve interviewed over 15,000 people and hired about a third of those.

Recruiting in Portland, I regularly hear hiring managers’ concerns that Portlanders lack work ethic. Even Portlandia lampooned the city as a place “where young people go to retire.” It’s damaging and risky to the employer brand when a manager is unabashedly biased, but more importantly, it isn’t true.

This fallacy is not inherently about living in Portland. It’s about engagement in work in the context of Portland’s progressive work/life balance mindset.

My first job in Portland was with a creative placement agency. I was doing informational interviews with talent looking to move from major markets to Portland, and there was a pattern in their motivation to move here. Not only is Portland a hub for great creative work, they didn’t want to do the grinding, 80-hour weeks that had come to be expected in the agency world.

They still wanted to produce great work, but flexibility and work/life balance was their priority.

The culture is shifting for top performers who know they have talent, can add value and want a work/life balance. For many, it is as important — if not more important — than compensation, perks and benefits. They can find that flexibility in a results-oriented workplace.

Portland’s tech, creative and design agencies have led this results-oriented trend, and helped develop our national reputation. Portland employers who offer this are rewarded by a group of employees who strive to exceed expectations. What distinguishes this group? In short, they love what they do and the employers that let them do it

And therein lies the crux of this false impression: loving what you do. Employers call it “engagement.” Engagement correlates to work quality and retention — both of which have real bottom-line impact.

In February, Gallup released its national engagement survey results. The group found that 50 percent of the U.S. workforce is still “not engaged” and does the bare minimum because they lack motivation.

Another 16 percent of the workforce is “actively disengaged,” meaning they’re actively seeking a new job or it’s a real hardship to drag themselves to work.

This combined 66 percent are the “TGIFs,” the “working-for-the-weekenders.” They’re not just in Portland, they’re coast-to-coast. Statistically, only one-third of the workforce cares about, looks forward to and does great work.

So why does Portland have this reputation of lack of work ethic when other cities don’t? Our progressive culture around flexibility at work through results-orientation highlights our disengaged workforce. They don’t feel they need to go through the motions of working “hard” because that’s not what they’re asked to do.

In Portland, the disengaged employee gets up and leaves for the day at 3 p.m. They roll in at 10 a.m. They take advantage of take-what-you-need vacation programs.

In other cities, they are metaphorically tied to their desk, sitting in front of their monitor for the requisite 8-plus hours a day. But they’re not working. They’re on social media. They’re job hunting. They’re gossiping with the other disengaged employees.

In both these scenarios, there are similar outcomes with work quality and results. However, it’s a little easier to move a low performer out of a results-oriented organization. They stand out.

Hiring managers seeking their next hire should look for that group of engaged employees, the people who love what they do and know their job is important with enough humility that they’ll flex and grow with you. While one-third is too small of a portion of people who love their work, it’s a big enough pool that we can build an awesome team. And they’ll be happy. And they’ll deliver.

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