Ethical Behavior Differs Among Generations: Page 2 of 2 | AccountingWEB

Ethical Behavior Differs Among Generations

Millennials: The Future of Professionalism
Perhaps the most surprising and disturbing result in the generational analysis is the relatively high percentages of Millennials who 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
The extensive use of social networking seems to pose challenges, as significant numbers of Millennials post questionable information on their personal social networking sites, including:
  • Feelings about their jobs  40 percent
  • Bad joke told by the boss  26 percent
  • Work on a project  26 percent
  • Picture of a coworker drinking  22 percent
  • Annoying habit of a coworker  20 percent
  • Information about the company's competitors  19 percent
  • Opinion about a coworker's politics  16 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.
Building a Strong Ethics and Compliance Program
The most encouraging news in the new ERC study is that a robust ethical culture means less pressure to compromise standards, fewer observations of misconduct, higher rates of reporting, and decreased levels of retaliation against those who report. A strong ethics and compliance program has a significant role in developing and maintaining an organization's culture. In terms of the generations, Millennials are particularly driven by a strong program to be more proactive in their ethical conduct. Yet a weak ethics and compliance program has an adverse effect on older cohorts.
In terms of reporting frequency, which mirrors overall effectiveness of ethics and compliance programs, Millennials are more likely to report misconduct when they can:
  • Use company resources (such as a hotline),
  • Feel prepared to handle an ethical dilemma (through effective training),
  • Talk to an ethics advice resource in the company, and 
  • Rely on coworkers for support.
In contrast, Boomers rely most heavily on "formal provision of standards and resources of an ethics and compliance program and [its] successful integration into their work arena as well as signs the company is doing the right thing," according to the report. In other words, older workers are more likely to consult more formal company channels for guidance, whereas the first choice of younger workers is likely to be their families. Traditionalists and Boomers are least likely to talk to their coworkers about it.
These differences are illustrated in deciding whom to consider telling about workplace misconduct, which varies considerably among generations. Millennials' choices are more extensive and significantly different from those of older cohorts. The youngest group prefers to tell:
  • Friends  65 percent
  • Family  65 percent
  • Government resources  28 percent
  • Religious leaders  22 percent
  • Social networks  21 percent
  • Legal counsel  20 percent
  • Traditional media  17 percent
Boomers' choices, like those of Traditionalists, are much more conservative. Boomers prefer to tell:
  • Government  14 percent
  • Religious leaders  9 percent
  • Social networks  4 percent
  • Legal counsel  9 percent 
  • Traditional media  3 percent 
The percentage of workers who make their initial report outside the organization is strikingly different among the generations:
  • Traditionalists  14 percent
  • Boomers  13 percent
  • Gen Xers  7 percent
  • Millennials  5 percent
But the trend reverses if an additional or second report is deemed necessary:
  • Millennials  19 percent
  • Gen Xers  18 percent
  • Boomers  15 percent
  • Traditionalists  13 percent
The IMA® Statement of Ethical Professional Practice states, "Each member has a responsibility to keep information confidential except when disclosure is authorized or legally required."
The different resources each generation use are a strong influence in the role the ethics and compliance program takes in an organization. Some of the objectives of the programs include raising employee awareness of:
  • The ethical standards of the organization,
  • Available resources for additional help,
  • Confidential mechanisms to report misconduct, and
  • Consequences for violating the code of conduct.
The report provides considerable motivation for senior executives to develop and maintain an ethics and compliance program in their organizations that will consider the attitudes and expectations of workers from all generations. Effective training programs should be the hallmark of a strong ethical culture. 
Read more articles by Curtis Verschoor
About the author:

Curtis C. Verschoor, CMA, is a member of the IMA Committee on Ethics. He is the Emeritus Ledger & Quill Research Professor at the School of Accountancy and MIS and an honorary Senior Wicklander Research Fellow in the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics, both at DePaul University, Chicago. He is also a Research Scholar in the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, Waltham, MA. He was selected by Trust Across America as one of North America’s Top Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior in 2012 and 2013. His e-mail address is

©2013 by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA®),; reprinted with permission.

For guidance in applying the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice to your ethical dilemma, contact the IMA Ethics Helpline at (800) 245-1383 in the United States or Canada. In other countries, dial the AT&T USA Direct Access Number from, then the above number.

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