Millennials: Ethically At-Risk?

2013 has been something of a Golden Age for media reports that discuss how members of the Millennial generation deal with ethical issues in the workplace. We’ve been treated to almost endless stories about Army Pfc. Bradley Manning and former intelligence industry worker Eric Snowden.

Both of these 20-somethings seemingly bypassed any internal ethics and compliance reporting systems and took their issues straight to the world through the Internet. Public opinion on Manning and Snowden varies greatly, but it seems like younger members of society are more likely to agree with the tactics employed by the pair.

Arizona Sen. John McCain captured this sentiment when he said, “There’s a young generation who believes he’s (Snowden) some kind of Jason Bourne,” referring to author Robert Ludlum’s spy hero who battles evil forces in the government, especially within the CIA.

In this atmosphere, the release of the Ethics Resource Center’s (ERC) report on “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics” could not have been better timed. Every two years ERC conducts a National Business Ethics Survey (NBES). This report takes another look at the 2011 NBES and puts its entire focus on generational differences. It breaks down the data by four generations:

  • The Millennials, born between the 1980s into the early 2000s. Sometimes this group is called Generation Y in popular culture.
    Generation X, the first generation after the Baby Boomers. It typically starts in the early 1960s and runs into the 1980s.
  • The Baby Boomers, born after WWII through 1960.
  • Traditionalists, those born before the end of WWII.

While many would see Snowden and Manning as extreme examples of ethical lapses of individuals within the Millennial generation — and hopefully “outliers” among ethical behavior data points — the ERC report identifies Millennials as the most “at-risk” group within organizations today. The point is clearly made in the following key findings.

Behaviors, acceptable or not?

One yardstick in the study measured how the generations looked at eight behaviors that would be considered wrong or at least to fall into a “grey” area. The behaviors were blogging or tweeting negatively about the company; buying personal items on the company credit card; keeping copies of confidential documents; working less to make up for a pay or benefits cut; “friending” a client or customer via social media; using social network tools to learn about competitors; uploading personal photos on the company network; and taking a copy of company software home for personal use.

In terms of ethically poor responses to these behaviors, Millennials went 8-for-8, scoring most poorly on each item. In other words, when it comes to this list, Millennials were the most tolerant of the questionable practices.

Traditionalists and Baby Boomers represented the other side of the coin. They were easily the least tolerant of these behaviors.

Finally, there’s one other piece of troubling information: 35 percent of the Millennials included in the survey results said they would “look the other way” when the company does something ethically questionable if they felt it would help save jobs. Their attitude seemed to be more open to the rationale of “the ends justify the means” than their older coworkers.

On an interesting and related note, a 2009 Pew survey found that two-thirds of Millennials themselves believe that older adults have better moral values and work ethics than they possess.

Social networks in the workplace

At least three questionable behaviors in the survey questions involved social networks, and business leaders today understand that these issues are becoming increasingly important. There are two reasons for this. First, social networks are growing in number and importance generally within society. Second, Millennials, who are very tied into the social networks, are accounting for a bigger share of the workforce. This familiarity or relationship with social networking is reflected in the results.

For example, while only 3-4 percent of Traditionalists and Baby Boomers would consider making a comment on a social network about a coworker’s annoying habit, 20 percent of the Millennials would do so. If the boss told a bad joke, 26 percent of the Millennials said they would mention it. Only 3 percent of the Traditionalists and 9 percent of the Baby Boomers would comment on it on social media.

However, the same Millennial willingness to engage social media exists when there’s something positive to say about the company. Fully 62 percent said they would post news of a promotion while only 35 percent of the Traditionalists would say something. Millennials also lead all generations in their willingness to post positive comments about their companies and coworkers.

Reporting unethical behavior

There are generational divides in the preferred ways to report or deal with instances of witnessed workplace unethical behavior, and it is most pronounced between Baby Boomers and the Millennials. When asked whom they would consider telling after observing misconduct, “friends” and “family” ranked first among Millennials at 65 percent each. For Baby Boomers those figures were 41 and 51 percent respectively.

Some 21 percent of Millennials would release the information in social media, compared to only 4 percent of the Baby Boomers. Further, among Millennials, 28 percent would go to the government and 20 percent would seek legal counsel in this situation. For Baby Boomers these numbers are 14 and 9 percent.

However, there is good news on this front as well. The survey found that among young workers, today’s Millennials are more likely to go through a company’s ethics reporting and compliance program and procedures than young workers in previous years. And, as the ERC looked at the survey results more closely, an interesting paradox emerged.

Millennials are significantly more likely to report misconduct than their older coworkers, both when the company’s ethical culture is weak and when the company’s ethical culture is strong. In the case of an “average strength ethical culture” Millennials report at about the same rate as all other age groups.

The ethical culture

For members of the Millennial generation, a culture rich in relationships and communication is central, and successful ethics and compliance programs will take those values into account. It is important to build on the resources that Millennials trust the most. Within an ethics and compliance program, the critical elements are:

  • training
  • advice
  • hotline
  • appraisal

And while those are the most important elements to Millennials, the research also shows that when they are aware of all the elements in a well-designed and implemented program, Millennials can be expected to report 67 percent of all their observed instances of misconduct. If they are aware of only half of the program elements, their expected reporting rate drops well below 40 percent. Training and retraining are obviously crucial.

The overall importance

We need to introduce two more survey results and then bring together the pieces of this puzzle. According to the results of this survey, Millennials observe more misconduct than any other single generation in the workplace today. They are also more likely to experience retaliation. When these facts are seen in the light of the Millennials’ mastery of social networking, it’s easy to understand how an organization could find itself in a very difficult situation. In fact, almost weekly it seems that a low-level employee manages to embarrass top management or damage the reputation of the company through social media.

This underscores the importance of a fully implemented ethics and compliance program. And to work with the at-risk Millennial generation, be certain to properly manage the elements that harmonize with their preferred ways to live, work, and learn. These include training, helplines, building honest and open relationships with supervisors, fostering a strong ethical culture, listening to Millennials’ input, and finding creative ways to increase communication.

For more information, check out “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics” and “Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers: Who’s Working at Your Company and What Do They Think About Ethics?” by the ERC.

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