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Ethics and Millennials

Is the future of Workplace Ethics at Risk?

Are there differences in attitudes toward ethical issues between today’s millennial generation and past generations? Is it true, as I have written before, that today’s generation lacks basic work ethic skills and seem more intrigued by the Internet and social media than learning for learning’s sake? Well, a recent study released in June 2013 seems to support my assertion. The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) published a new study that provides further analysis of its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES). The initial analysis of the 2011 NBES presented findings that made me take notice about a possible future downward shift in business ethics. This new report, titled Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics, examines the differences in attitudes toward ethical issues among the four generational groups. 

The four generational groups examined in the survey are Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X workers (Gen Xers), and Millenials or Generation Y workers (Gen Yers). Traditionalists, born 1925–1945, are hardworking, respectful of authority, and value loyalty. Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964, are hardworking, idealistic, and committed to harmony. Gen Xers, born 1965–1980, are entrepreneurial, flexible and self-reliant, and comfortable with technology. Millennials, born 1981–2000, are tech-savvy, appreciative of diversity, and skilled in multitasking.

Some of the negative traits and workplace attributes widely assigned to each cohort include:

  • Traditionalists – Conformers who resist change, are disciplined and pragmatic, work and family lives never coincide, dress formally.
  • Boomers – Self-centered with sense of entitlement, workaholics, self-motivated, don't appreciate feedback.
  • Gen Xers – Lazy, skeptical and cynical, question authority figures, desire for a work-life balance and flexible schedule, work dress is at low end of business casual.
  • Millennials – Lack basic literacy fundamentals, very short attention spans, not loyal to organization, demand immediate feedback and recognition, integrate technology into the workplace, expect to have many employers and multiple careers, work dress is whatever feels comfortable.

According to an analysis of the report, these differences in attitudes and traits have resulted in a great deal of variability in many of the measures of workplace ethics. The study found that the youngest workers are significantly more likely than their older colleagues to feel pressure from others to break ethical rules because the pressure "eases as workers spend more time in the workforce and learn ways of coping with their work environment." The analysis seems to indicate that as a possible solution, companies should concentrate more on issues of ethical culture during the orientation of new employees, which should mitigate their feeling of not knowing much about how to act within the culture of their new workplace.

While earlier studies have shown that younger workers were less likely to report unethical behavior, the latest report shows a sharp increase in Millennials' reporting. "They are now on par with their older cohorts, except for Traditionalists," who observed and reported fewer instances than in previous years. Millennials observed 49 percent of workplace misconduct, the highest of all generations. The types of misconduct observed include:

  • Personal business on company time – 26 percent
  • Lying to employees – 22 percent
  • Abusive behavior – 21 percent
  • Company resource abuse – 21 percent
  • Discrimination – 18 percent
Of those Millennials who observed unethical behavior, 67 percent of them reported the misconduct, which included:
  • Stealing or theft – 74 percent
  • Falsifying expense reports – 71 percent
  • Goods/services fail to meet specifications – 69 percent
  • Falsifying time sheets or hours worked – 68 percent
  • Offering improper payments/bribes to public officials – 67 percent
All age-groups tend to inform their supervisors, whom they know well and can trust, about misconduct they observed. Only a small percentage of workers went outside their organizations with their initial complaints.

It doesn’t surprise me that a high percentage of Millennials consider certain behaviors in the workplace to be ethical, including:

  • Using social networking to find out about the company's competitors – 37 percent
  • "Friending" a client or customer on a social network – 36 percent
  • Uploading personal photos on a company network – 26 percent
  • Keeping copies of confidential documents – 22 percent
  • Working less to compensate for cuts in benefits or pay – 18 percent
  • Buying personal items using a company credit card – 15 percent
  • Blogging or tweeting negatively about a company – 14 percent
  • Taking a copy of work software home for personal use – 13 percent
Most importantly, the report states that younger workers are significantly more willing to ignore the presence of misconduct if they think that behavior will help save jobs. "Willingness to 'let the ends justify the means' seems to have a strong inverse correlation with age," according to the report.

This is what concerns me the most. The utilitarian ethics of the ends justifies the means is most closely associated with an act utilitarian analysis of harms versus benefits. If the benefits (often to the individual) exceed the harms to others, then that individual might rationalize unethical behavior as benefitting more than it harms.

A means versus ends reasoning can lead to covering up unethical behavior in the workplace, covering up one’s personal wrongdoing, and rationalizing unethical behavior as somehow justified by the circumstances. The workplace of tomorrow will become an unhealthy environment if each person is out for themselves regardless of the consequence s of their behavior on others.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 12, 2013