Millenials Suffer Ethical Lapses at Work

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America's youngest workers are almost twice as likely as Baby Boomers to buy personal items with a company credit card, almost three times as likely to blog or tweet something negative about their company, and about two and a half times as likely to take company software home for their own use, according to a new study.
For Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics, the Arlington, Va.-based Ethics Resource Center interviewed 4,800 working adults, by phone or online, from Sept. 15 to 29, 2011. It released the results June 24, 2013.  
“When it comes to the ‘grey’ areas—the types of issues where the rules are not clear—Boomers were the least tolerant of deviations from standards and Millennials the most open to questionable behavior,” the report stated.
The report defined Millennials as those age 18-29; Generation Xers as those 30-44; Baby Boomers as those 45-63; and Traditionals as those 64-84. 
“I think [younger workers] have a very different perspective than a lot of us on where your personal life stops and your work life begins,” said Patricia J. Harned, president of ERC, a nonprofit that conducts research on ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions. “For them, the workday doesn’t exist from 9 to 5. You’re able to log in and do work from home and at night; so to them, that also means that it’s OK to take software licensed by your company and take it home for personal use. That’s where there’s sort of a blurring of work and personal boundaries.”
Millennials were more likely than all other age groups to:
  • Blog or tweet negatively about their company (14 percent vs. 9 percent of Generation Xers, 5 percent of Baby    Boomers and 1 percent of Traditionals).
  • Find it acceptable to buy personal items with company credit cards (15 percent vs. 9 percent of Generation Xers, 8 percent of Baby Boomers and 5 percent of Traditionals).
  • Take firm software home for personal use (13 percent vs. 11 percent of Generation Xers, 5 percent of Baby Boomers and 8 percent of Traditionals).
Harned noted that the study’s question about credit-card usage assumed that the worker would eventually repay the company for charging a personal item. The question, she said, “is really about the company fronting the money and the employee paying it back.”
Among Millennials, one in five would use personal social media sites to discuss a co-worker’s annoying habit, the report found. One in four would post a boss’s bad joke online. Two in five would post their feelings about their job. And about one in six would post his or her opinions about colleagues’ politics.
“This is one of the ways that social networks have changed the workplace,” Harned said. “They’re an easy outlet for people to announce things to the world or to vent about what frustrates them, and it does start to erode people’s ideas about what’s really appropriate to share with the world.”
About one in three Millennials (35 percent) strongly agreed or agreed to “look the other way” if his or her company did something questionable, compared with about one in five Generation Xers, one in six Baby Boomers and one in eight Traditionals.
Harned said the question that produced this finding was worded this way: “Would you be willing to look the other way if your employer was doing [something questionable] in the interest of trying to help others?”
“Consistent with this varying degree of tolerance for ambiguous behaviors, younger workers are significantly more willing to close their eyes to misconduct if they think debatable behavior will help save jobs,” the report said. 
The youngest employees were also more likely than their older colleagues to feel pressured by others to break company rules. Fifteen percent of Millennials reported pressure to compromise their standards when it came to company policies, compared with 13 percent of Generation Xers and 9 percent of Baby Boomers.
Additionally, Millennials were more likely than any other age group to report workplace misconduct if they could get a financial reward: 54 percent of them said a reward would inspire them to speak up about wrongdoing, compared with 45 percent of Generation Xers and 33 percent of Baby Boomers.
“This could be the result of greater financial need among younger workers, or a reflection of older workers being more invested in and loyal to their companies,” the report said.
A 2008 Josephson Institute survey of almost 30,000 American high school students resulted in comparable findings. The institute released its Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth with the headline: “Survey of Teens Reveals Entrenched Habits of Dishonesty—Stealing, Lying and Cheating Rates Climb to Alarming Rates.”
The survey found that:
  • 64 percent of high school students have cheated on a test in school one or more times.
  • 82 percent have copied someone else’s homework for school.
  • 30 percent have stolen something from a store.
  • 65 percent have lied to a teacher.
  • 26 percent said they weren’t entirely honest in answering the questions on the survey.
One of the ERC’s recommendations for handling Millennials and ethical lapses is to communicate the company’s commitment to ethics in terms of “people, relationships and integrity in the way people treat each other.” Another is to “focus on messaging from colleagues and immediate supervisors—those individuals who are more likely to be influential to them.”
“It is important for companies to realize that each generation perceives ethics and culture differently from the others,” Harned said. “However, business leaders should know they do not have to completely redesign their ethics and compliance programs. Implementing an effective ethics and compliance program and building a strong ethics culture will continue to make a difference for all employees. The key is communicating their commitment to ethics differently for different generations.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.