Millennials Have Their Own Take on Ethics in the Workplace

June 22, 2010

ERC Survey Shows They Share Interest in Fairness and Respect With Older Co-Workers; Concerns on Privacy and Calling in Sick? Not So Much

American workers between the ages of 18 and 29 – the “Millennials” – have more in common with older co-workers when it comes to workplace ethics than often thought, but they also hold to some values that set them apart from their Baby Boomer counterparts, according to a newly released report by the Ethics Resource Center.

ERC survey data show that pressure to commit misconduct on the job, for example, is experienced at a similar rate among employees, independent of age and generation. Likewise, employees who witness misconduct and report it are likely to experience the same rate of retaliation regardless of age.

But the report – “Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers: Who’s Working at Your Company and What Do They Think About Ethics?” – shows that young, more recent entrants to the workforce share some distinct characteristics that are posing fresh challenges to employers.

Twelve percent of Millennials, for example, said they believe it is acceptable to post negative comments about their employer on blogs or Twitter, compared to 8 percent of Gen X-ers (age 30 - 44) and 5 percent of Boomers (age 45 – 63). And 19 percent of Millennials said it is acceptable to keep copies of confidential documents, compared to 16 percent of Gen X-ers and 15 percent of Baby Boomers. They also have less of a problem calling in sick when they’re not (18 percent, versus 19 percent of Gen X-ers and 13 percent of Boomers) and fewer concerns about privacy in the Internet era.

“This research is an important heads-up for employers,” said Patricia Ellis, vice president for business ethics and compliance at Raytheon, a sponsor of the report. “It tells us how successive generations bring their own distinctive views to the job and to fine tune our education initiatives accordingly.”

The results also indicate that younger employees are more likely than their older peers to observe misconduct among co-workers and less likely to have a positive impression of their employer’s ethical culture.

“These findings are leading indicators that are telling us, as employers, to adjust our training and ethics messages to help younger employees handle misconduct and understand the importance of ethics on the job,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, vice president corporate responsibility at Northrop Grumman, the co-sponsor.

The report is based on ERC’s 2009 National Business Ethics Survey. It is one of a series of special reports on topics including employee engagement and the effects of the recession on ethics. Reports on ethical culture, reporting and retaliation are scheduled for release later this summer.

“The NBES, which ERC conducts every two years, keeps getting better,” said Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D., president of ERC. “This kind of longitudinal data becomes more and more valuable for its insights and clues to trends in workplace behavior. Every survey we do shows the importance of ethical culture inside an organization.”

"Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers: Who’s Working at Your Company and What Do They Think About Ethics?" is based on results of ERC’s 2009 National Business Ethics Survey of 2,852 respondents. The survey findings had a sampling error of +/- 1.8 at the 95 percent confidence level. For more information on methodology, go to http://www.ethics.org/nbes/methodology.html.  The NBES survey is conducted every two years and is widely used by chief ethics and compliance officers in business and government and by academicians. 

The Ethics Resource Center is an independent, nonprofit research organization dedicated to advancing ethics programs and ethical culture in private and public institutions.

Download the research brief.

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Contact: Philip Smith phil@ethics.org 571-480-4419