Leading the four-generation workforce

Key elements that help Millennials buy into ethics and culture

Michael Lewis //October 7, 2015//

Leading the four-generation workforce

Key elements that help Millennials buy into ethics and culture

Michael Lewis //October 7, 2015//

Leadership and management of organizations in all industries are in a tough spot when it comes to generational gaps in the workplace, particularly so in regards to attitudes and perceptions of ethics between the groups. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, there are currently four different generations making up the U.S. labor force, with 3.7 million Traditionalists, born between 1925-1945; 44.6 million Baby Boomers, born between 1946-1964; 52.7 million Gen Xers, born between 1965-1980; and 53.5 Millennials, born between 1981-2000.

As the newest generation to join the workforce, and now the largest, extensive research recently has been performed to understand why Millennials think the way they do, explain how events have shaped their perceptions of the world and how they can be expected to interact with the rest of the workforce. 

With Millennials’ share of the workforce increasing, understanding their characteristics and personality traits is critical in revising existing and shaping new organizational policies. Ethics tend to change over periods of times and can be facilitated by different generational perspectives. What was once considered status quo and acceptable conduct in the workplace will change as the workforce talent mix continues to change. 

Workplace Ethics Gap

The 2011 National Business Ethics Survey by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) polled nearly 5,000 participants and was aimed at understanding how employees viewed the concepts of ethics and compliance at work.  One of the key findings the ERC felt warranted additional attention was the impact generational perceptions of ethics and rules may have in the workplace.  

The ERC’s results pointed out that there were distinct differences among generations in terms of workplace behavior that was deemed acceptable.  This can be particularly important to understand when dealing with certain “gray areas” that may be encountered in an organization’s day-to-day operations. As indicated in the table below, Millennials may have a looser interpretation of company policies or certain elements of professional etiquette than their predecessors. 

In addition to their views constituting acceptable behavior in the workplace, Millennials also tend to differ in how they communicate instances of misconduct in the workplace.  The survey responses indicated that, while each generation has some degree of inclination to use their own company’s resources to report instances of wrongdoing, Millennials are generally the least likely of the four groups to report them at all. 

Source:  2013 Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics – A Supplement Report of the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey http://www.ethics.org/files/u5/2011GenDiffFinal.pdf

Encouraging Ethical Behavior

Ethical behavior requires us to always think about how business decisions and personal actions may affect the organization and anyone associated.  How leadership views ethics sets the tone for every other aspect of the workplace. 

How does an organization implement a strategy to address risk, reflect the entity’s core values related to ethics and improve compliance with the ethics program?  Fortunately, the tools and techniques for this generation are similar to what has been proven effective in bringing ethics and ethical behavior to the previous generations.

Make a commitment at all levels of the organization, stating that each person will be held accountable for creating a culture that encourages ethical behavior and establishes a high integrity workforce with the common goal of achieving the organization’s vision and mission. 

Use a number of aids that will provide your employees with structure and common goals.  That structure may include a code of conduct, background checks, ethics training, and internal controls.

There are four key elements of a company’s culture and ethics compliance program that allow for Millennials to be more likely to report instances of wrongdoing through the use of company resources:

  • Communicate the availability of company reporting mechanisms
  • Identify an individual that can serve as a source of advice for ethical issues that arise
  • Create a culture that allows for co-workers to be relied upon for support
  • Develop programming and training that will allow for employees to feel prepared to handle ethical dilemmas when they arise

There’s no doubt that having a strong ethics culture in place can transcend differences in generational perspectives toward ethical behavior.  Millennials are continuing to have more influence on the workforce and when you consider their perspectives and inclinations with regard to workplace ethics, it will be necessary to refine compliance and employee development programming. Millennials greatly depend on social interactions to shape their perceptions about ethics.  As such, “relationship-based” communication styles (such as direct conversations and counseling from close supervisors and other influential colleagues) should be promoted in order to further communicate organizational policies on ethical matters. 

A strong ethical culture that permeates an organization from top to bottom is truly an asset for those organizations that embrace and promote ethical behavior.  It can significantly reduce risks within organizations by reducing the likelihood of financial reporting fraud, asset misappropriation, and reputational and brand damage.