The Impact of the “Millennial Mindset” on Workplace Ethics

The Millennial generation, which includes individuals born from 1982 to 2000, has become the largest living generation in the U.S., surpassing Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). More Millennials are entering the workforce each year – by 2020, they will comprise roughly half of the labor force, and the figure is expected to reach 75 percent by 2030. As the number of Millennials who become full-time employees continues to rise, their impact on organizational culture is already being felt, particularly from an ethics and compliance perspective.

From an organizational standpoint, the influx of Millennials into the workforce is not necessarily considered as a positive development. Millennials are sometimes derisively referred to as “Generation Me” – they are often characterized as being entitled, impatient and overly result oriented. Technology, particularly the advent of social media, has played a prominent role in how Millennials view and interact with the world around them – and not always for the better.

Positive and Negative Millennial Traits

A 2013 Ethics Resource Center’s report, “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics,” which was released as a supplement to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, identified the following positive traits as being applicable to the Millennial generation: skilled multitaskers, tech-savvy and appreciative of a diverse workforce.

On the downside, the report indicates that Millennials lack basic literacy fundamentals. They also have extremely short attention spans and are easily distracted. Organizational loyalty is a foreign concept to Millennials – most expect to have many employers and even multiple careers during their working life.

Ethics and Millennials in the Workplace

It is these negative Millennial traits that are raising concerns with many ethics and compliance experts. One of the biggest areas of concern is workplace theft. A 2015 Ethics Resource Center study found that, perhaps because of their heightened sense of entitlement, Millennials are nearly twice as likely as Baby Boomers to use a company credit card to purchase personal items. Additionally, they’re approximately three times as likely to use social media as a forum for making negative comments about their employer. What’s more, Millennials are approximately two and a half times more likely to remove company software from the workplace.

Millennials may exercise questionable judgement while on the job, which can lead to ethical lapses in certain areas. The pervasiveness of the Internet, which enables files, data and proprietary information to easily be shared with others outside the organization, has created a mindset that everything is “common property,” even if sharing the information could damage the employer. Time theft is another issue with the Millennial generation, as many employees spend much of their day using their personal devices for non-work-related activities. Too often, the desire to be “tuned-in” trumps doing actual work.

Paradoxically, while Millennials do not place a high value on ethics in terms of their own behavior, they do prefer to work for organizations they perceive to be ethically sound and that conduct their business operations in a socially responsible manner.

The Need for Organizations to Embrace the Millennial Mindset

While organizations certainly cannot change the way a whole generation of workers thinks, they can attempt to embrace the Millennial mindset. As an increasing number of Millennials will be entering the workforce in the coming years, doing so will become a virtual necessary to ensure organizational survival. One way employers can gain a competitive advantage when recruiting talented Millennials is placing a strong emphasis on improving ethics and social responsibility. For instance, many Millennials want to work for organizations that emphasize giving back to the local communities and finding ways to protect the environment.

Ethics Training for Millennials

The nuances of the Millennial mindset require organizations to rethink the way they approach ethics and compliance training. As social media is so ingrained in the everyday life of Millennials, it can serve as an effective training tool. For example, organizations can use various social media channels to deliver messages from leadership on pertinent ethics and compliance-related topics.

It’s also important to make all training activities as engaging as possible. Training should be interactive and fast-paced and include mobile content accessibility. Ideally, ethics training should feature a combination of online, in-person and video training sessions. Brevity is also critical due to Millennials’ relatively short attention span. Millennials crave feedback, so it should be provided as often as possible during training.

In terms of content, it’s important to craft and “brand” the training program so that the employees will view it as beneficial to their ongoing professional development. Keeping in mind that most Millennials probably are not planning to work for the organization for the next 30-40 years, the training should focus on the development of “transferrable” ethics and compliance knowledge and skill sets. Key ethics topics that resonate with Millennials who have managerial aspirations include detecting and preventing retaliation, how to investigate incidents of ethical misconduct, and conflict resolution.

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