Ethical Behavior Differs Among Generations

By Curtis C. Verschoor, CMA
In June, the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) published a new study that provides further analysis of its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES). The Washington, DCbased ERC is a private, nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private organizations. The initial analysis of the 2011 NBES showed unexpected and disturbing findings that may portend a 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 19251945, are hardworking, respectful of authority, and value loyalty. Baby Boomers, born 19461964, are hardworking, idealistic, and committed to harmony. Gen Xers, born 19651980, are entrepreneurial, flexible and self-reliant, and comfortable with technology. Millennials, born 19812000, 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.
Reporting and Its Consequences
According to Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics, 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." 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.

Observations in the ERC Report

  • The younger the worker, the more his or her perceptions about ethics will be influenced by social interaction.
  • The older the employee, the more hierarchy, structure, and visible company commitment matter.
  • Culture makes a difference for all generations, but for younger workers, culture is the sum of their interactions with other individuals, much of which is with coworkers. Older workers get their cues about culture from the company's stated values, messages from the top, and their beliefs about the organization as a whole.
Another finding in the generational study was that more younger workers observed ethical misconduct in the workplace during the previous twelve months than their older colleagues. This is in spite of the fact that Millennials observed significantly fewer examples of using company time to conduct personal business than did those in older generations. The study explains this latter phenomenon by noting that younger workers tend to integrate their work and personal lives to a greater extent.
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. Millennials are the group most likely to report by using the hotline option. The study found that younger workers were significantly more likely than those in older generations to feel some form of retribution or retaliation. This is possibly due to the increase in their reporting of misdeeds.

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