Understanding Ethics: Does Employee Age Matter?

With employee perspectives on ethics shaped by very different sets of life experiences, it has never been more important for employers to engage employees across the generations. Baby boomer and millennial employees can understand common goals, even the company’s mission and vision, but understanding ethics can be an entirely different challenge.

Understanding ethics means making decisions on a daily basis with integrity, based on a values-driven workplace culture instead of just a compliant one.

The reality is that “Corporate Compliance” is often just a matter of checking boxes. Ethics can be a much more nebulous topic, and much more difficult for Human Resources teams to keep watch over. In an effort to succeed, employees feeling pressured sometimes strive to succeed in the wrong way. Consider the constant stream of news reports announcing ethical violations of theft and deception – sometimes starting at the very top.

The reports only scratch the surface of what’s going on. There are employees behaving in ways that are unethical, but the behaviors don’t rise to the level of a crime – backstabbing coworkers, job hopping despite commitments made at the time of hiring, secretly talking to disruptive union representatives rather than approaching supervisors, and on and on the list goes. Ethics is a pervasive principle.

Employee communication

Linking Ethics to the Generations

Do baby boomers and millennials have different perspectives on ethics? Multiple surveys suggest they do. Baby boomers operate best in a workplace where there are formal systems to incentivize ethical conduct, access to formal channels that can provide regular guidance, published standards of conduct for responding to questionable activities and ethical leadership.

Millennials don’t like boundaries, largely due to technology and globalization. They like the flexibility to handle situations, collaborative work and quick access to resources when advice is needed. They’re more open and transparent, thus more likely to discuss their employer and workplace conditions with a wide range of people inside and outside the organization, creating a setup for ethical violations. Since they’re more flexible, millennials tend to tolerate historically typical unethical or non-compliant co-worker behaviors more than baby boomers, like theft.

One reason they don’t report observed misconduct at times is because they have seen “whistleblowers” get punished for doing the right thing. Yet, millennials are more likely than baby boomers to access the person or office responsible for compliance and ethics. The lesson to learn is that they’re very social, so communication about ethics and compliance should include social interaction and ongoing support, like ongoing training, technology-based reporting systems and frequent communications from leaders addressing ethics, which could be social media postings, tweets, HR feedback systems and all the other tools that people use to stay in touch.

Union-Free Millennials

Expanding on What Ethics Embraces

Over the years, what is considered unethical behaviors has changed. Baby boomers that did report violations focused on things like fraud and financial manipulation. Millennials are more focused on workplace behaviors like sexual harassment, discrimination, biased talent systems, and corporate social or environmental irresponsibility. People were shocked when Google employees resigned to protest the company’s participation in Pentagon-funded projects. When employees question the ethics of their employers, engagement is negatively impacted.

A couple of surveys also found that millennials are more inclined to do some things you, as an employer, likely believe are unethical. They include tweeting or posting information online about the organization and keeping copies of confidential documents. These are the types of activities that can easily end up involving unions. With the more relaxed millennial perspective of ethics, the challenge for employers is developing an organizational culture that gives people the freedom to be different, while embracing generational diversity.

Make Understanding Ethics Local

Gallup’s research indicates that 70 percent of differences in employee engagement come down to local teams. This particular research addressed employees working in a variety of locations, but there is a lesson for all employers. All organizational leaders down to the lowest level must be ambassadors for ethics, driving the creation of an engaging culture that has ethics as a core value. Senior managers ordering people to act ethically via a policy may work with some baby boomers who are used to hierarchal orders, but it won’t be enough for millennials and it won’t create the ethical culture. Ethics must be “glocal” – local and global – whether talking about a particular department or an international business location.

Here’s the caveat: Millennials must have access to the right communication tools, like confidential online helplines before they are likely to report ethics violations. Employees in various generations reported bribery, kickbacks, and stealing, the kind of behaviors baby boomers have traditionally reported. However, other unethical behaviors reported by the 69 percent include misuse of confidential information, sexual harassment, and offering products and services that did not meet quality standards. Ethics goes far beyond compliance.

All About a Culture of Integrity

Of most importance is the fact the Ethics & Compliance Institute’s survey found that companies aren’t making progress in developing an ethical culture, which is the biggest factor influencing employee behavior. Only 20 percent of employees surveyed said their company has a strong ethical culture and approximately 40 percent indicated the organization’s ethical culture is weak. Developing a culture of ethics and compliance is crucial to maintaining an organization with a workforce that acts with integrity on a day-today basis.

A culture of integrity has certain characteristics, like a set of clear values, senior managers who behave ethically and regularly encourage employees to do so, and consistency of messaging. Your frontline managers should be engaged in reinforcing the culture on a daily basis. People at all levels of the organization should be held accountable for behaving ethically. Internal violations and other employee matters should be handled equitably, a key principle for keeping unions out of the workplace.

The organization needs to provide a variety of communication systems to appeal to multiple generations and provide consistent messaging. An effective communication system can send the message across generations in the format each generation prefers and by the people (i.e. CEO, supervisors, co-workers) each generation is most likely to pay attention to, i.e. CEO, middle managers, frontline supervisors and/or co-workers. That might be a video played in a meeting or the same video distributed via social media or shared via an email link.

Younger generations learn best by doing as they’ve grown up with tablets and smartphones in their hands. For younger leaders, interactive eLearning may be the best training solution. Baby Boomers are often fact-finders and may appreciate having all the Company’s ethics reference information on an easily readable website.

Ethical Culture Begets Employee Engagement

Creating an ethical and compliant culture brings a lot of advantages, like a more engaged workforce. It’s also the foundation of creating a UnionProof culture because an ethical culture is supportive of employees, believes in equitable treatment, and is supported by strong and regular two-way communication between employees and managers. People in every generation want to be treated fairly.

Think about this: Baby boomers joined unions decades ago because they perceived their employers to be unethical, profit driven rather than people driven, unjust and non-communicative about Human Resources matters, i.e. promotion systems, pay scales, etc. Today, if all team members know their supervisor, and ultimately their employer, will stand behind them when they make tough, ethical decisions, it minimizes the odds of unions taking hold in your business. It’s the best way to stay union free.

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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