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Ethical Disconnect: Another Millennial Myth or the Real Thing?


Ethical Disconnect: Another Millennial Myth or the Real Thing?

The first thing I thought when I read in Human Resource Executive about the study comparing Gen Y/Millennials ethics to other generations by researchers at the Toledo College of Business and Innovation was, “Millennials get dissed again!” But are the conclusions another misinterpretation?

Maybe, but the evidence revealed by Darrell M. Cosgrove and Sonny S. Ariss, who studied 4,484 mid-western college employees, found that Millennials think in terms of “shades of grey” about workplace rules and are as much as twice as likely as their older counterparts to consider, and move forward with, violating company policies.      

Related: Analyzing Why Millennials Think Differently About Money

Specifically, here’s what they found:

  • Compared with other generations, Millennials are twice as likely to indicate they would take credit for someone else’s work.
  • Millennials would be twice as likely to sabotage co-workers, for example if the company was facing the possibility of layoffs, they would sabotage another person’s career to help protect themselves from being laid off.
  • Millennials are far more comfortable using social media for personal reasons at work. (It’s immediate gratification.)
  • Millennials didn’t view as wrong taking sick time off when they weren’t sick. They think of it as similar to vacation time an entitlement?). They answered the follow up question about whether they ever broke company ethical policies by saying,” No.”

Interestingly, when the researchers asked the same (study) questions to students, the students felt twice as strongly as the Millennials in the study that university academic codes are too strict.

What’s going on? Are Millennials and Gen Zers ethically deficient? How can their potential transgressions be explained? Are they disconnected to the older generations’ ethical compasses?

The researchers speculate that: 

Millennials may typically look at ethics situationally. For example, is it a “crime without a victim”? Or would a white lie would give them immediate gratification? If they can do something quickly (like personal texts or a quick read and post on social media), it shouldn’t be an issue, they think. And if an employer can email them and expect responses on off-hours, why shouldn’t they be able to pursue personal things on company time? They may think if older workers need to take more sick time, it’s only fair young people get a compensatory benefit if they are healthy.

How to address the ethical divide?

  • First, employers need to think more flexibly and understand the reasons for the behaviors. Clearly the priorities differ. If the behavior is unacceptable, a civil dialogue is necessary.
  • Before bad habits become ingrained, employers need to set out and discuss expectations on both sides from day one of employment. These issues should be covered in orientation and then reiterated a month or two later.
  • Custom design ethical training for Millennials in a way that they “get it” and understand how the rules benefit them and are necessary for company success.
  • Orientation ethical rules and expectations should be discussed with new employees of all generations.

Since there were no studies of how Boomers viewed workplace ethics in their 20s compared with older generations, it’s difficult to assess whether Millennials will change their attitudes on those rules and norms as they grow older. However, given how society in general has gotten more cavalier with honesty and civility, it is likely that employers will have to take initiatives to prevent harm to people and the organization from ethical disconnects.

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