Business Ethics for a New Generation: The Innovators

For what may be the first time in our nation's history, workers from three generations are rubbing elbows in the workplace.
Publish date:


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.

However, with respect to the Millennials, analysis of the ERC survey data suggests that some special ethical issues can arise. Like their Gen X predecessors, Millennials tend to assume that it is the quality of their work that matters, and not the number of hours they spend doing it. Consequently, Millennial employees can frustrate Baby Boomer managers who perceive Millennials' reluctance to put in time for its own sake as proof that they lack a strong work ethic.

Raised on the Internet, Millennials may not appreciate the importance of confidentiality and may be more inclined than workers of previous generations to keep copies of confidential documents. They may also be genuinely surprised by their supervisors' anger when they criticize their companies in online blogs and tweets.

Interestingly, Millennial managers in particular may need extra support, because the ERC survey data indicates that they have more negative impressions of and experience with their companies' ethics than non-management workers of their generation. They observe more misconduct than their non-management peers. Sadly, they are also more likely than their peers and older managers to experience retaliation when they report perceived misconduct in their companies.

It's important for employers to remember that Millennials, and particularly Millennial managers, are the future of their business. Instead of complaining about Millennials and their attitudes, employers are wise to learn from the ERC data and adjust their approach to business ethics when dealing with Millennial employees.

Companies with unnecessarily rigid work hours may benefit from reconsidering whether at least some positions can accommodate more flexible schedules; Millennials who work for those companies should have work hour requirements clearly explained to them and uniformly enforced. Millennials should be given targeted training to understand and respect the importance of respecting confidentiality and privacy in the workplace. They should also be expressly instructed not to keep personal copies of confidential company documents. Additionally, if a company is concerned about being publicly criticized online, it is wise to adopt explicit policies on Internet use, including statements concerning the company and its customers, and to train employees on compliance with those policies.

Managers who oversee Millennial employees may also benefit from specialized training. Millennials as a group value diversity, so it may be particularly beneficial for their supervisors to be reminded of the importance of sensitivity to diversity issues. (Discrimination and harassment are never good, but may be especially harmful to Millennial workers' morale.) Older managers who have a hard time letting go of the expectation that all work must be done onsite and for a specified number of hours each day might be encouraged to focus more on the quality of Millennials' work than on counting the minutes they spend in the office. If Millennial employees seem to crave unreasonable amounts of positive reinforcement, their supervisors may need to be taught how to deliver both praise and criticism honestly, but with tact.

It is particularly important for employers to recognize that Millennial managers can be very observant, and may well become demoralized if they report employee misconduct only to be ignored or, worse, retaliated against. Training them to work within the company to address perceived employee misconduct, rather than to become disengaged and critical, can be a good investment in a company's future leadership.

Become a fan of TheStreet on Facebook.

Lauren Bloom is a Washington, D.C. attorney and the CEO of Elegant Solutions Consulting, a consulting firm dedicated to helping professionals, business and association management executives build trust with their clients, customers and members by "walking the ethics talk" in their daily practices. She is the author of the "The Art of the Apology -- How to Apologize Effectively to Practically Anyone."