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Business Ethics for a New Generation: The Innovators

NEW YORK ( TheStreet ) -- For what may be the first time in our nation's history, workers from three generations -- Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials -- are rubbing elbows in the workplace. So much has been written about the differences among the three generations that we all know the stereotypes.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are often portrayed as idealistic workaholics whose laudable commitment to their employer organizations is somewhat undercut by a sense of personal entitlement. Gen X-ers (born between 1965 and 1980) are praised for being entrepreneurial, comfortable with technology and creative, but are also often criticized for being cynical, disrespectful of authority, and more concerned about work-life balance than getting the job done.

Millennials (born since 1981) are lauded as tech-savvy, skilled multi-taskers with a tremendous appreciation for diversity, but are sometimes dismissed as pampered children with limited attention spans and an insatiable craving for praise.

While a great deal has been written about how to motivate and manage workers from each of the generations, less attention has been paid to how the generations differ with respect to business ethics. This is an unfortunate oversight, because a research study recently released by the Ethics Resource Center suggests that Millennials, in particular, have some unique attitudes and perceptions concerning business ethics that could have a profound effect on American companies.

Since 1994, the Ethics Resource Center has conducted its National Business Ethics Survey on six separate occasions, nationally exploring the beliefs and experiences of employees at all levels with respect to business ethics. The results were somewhat surprising, especially for those of us who have bought into the notion that serious differences exist between the generations.

It appears that some differences among the generations have less to do with generational culture than with professional seasoning. Workers of all ages and levels of experience faced similar levels of pressure to commit misconduct at work and were equally likely to experience retaliation for reporting a co-worker's misconduct. Younger workers were more likely than older ones to observe misconduct, but Millennials were not significantly more likely to observe misconduct than Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers were at similar ages.

Younger workers were also less likely to report other workers' misconduct but, again, Millennials did not significantly differ from previous generations in their willingness to report observed misconduct. This data led the ERC to conclude that younger workers' higher tendency to observe workplace misconduct but greater reluctance to report it has less to do with generational differences than with personal insecurity based on a lack of life and work experience. Older workers may be a little less observant of perceived workplace misconduct but, when they do notice it, may be more confident about where and how to report it.
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