As we develop our ethics and compliance programs, increased focus is being turned to Millennial workers and how to engage them. We seek to use their generation’s technology- mobile access, byte sized modules, and gamification – to ‘instill’ an ethics and compliance culture that’s been molded by the Boomers and Traditionalists before them.  But does this established ethical framework actually correspond with the core values, and perception of ethics, at the heart of the new workforce? Do different generations view ethics through a different lens?

Sean Freidlin, Marketing Manager for SAI Globa

Sean Freidlin, Marketing Manager for SAI Global.

For example, is a 40-year industry veteran or a new, fresh out of college employee more likely to leak confidential company information if it doesn’t correspond with their personal values?  Which of those two employees do you think is more likely to report misconduct in the workplace if they witness it?

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest segment of our current population.

In 2016, 25% of the modern American workforce is between 21-34 years old, and by 2020, as Boomers retire and college graduates continue to enter the job market, 50% of the American workforce will be Millennials.

So why does this matter to CCOs, CECOs, HR departments and regulatory bodies?  Simply put, many Millennials deem certain unethical business behaviors to be ethical.

The 2013 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) polled over 6,000 Millennial (born 1981-2000), Generation X (born 1965-1980), and Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) employees in the United States on a variety of ethical issues.  One of the most revealing data points from the NBES emphasizes that Millennials, more than any other generation, have a very high risk for noncompliance.  48% of Millennials surveyed observed misconduct (41% of Gen X and 37% of Boomers), but 26% of them (16% of Gen X and 12% of Boomers) would turn a blind eye to that very same misconduct and not report it. .

Those unreported acts of misconduct included inappropriate expenses, conducting personal business on company time, lying to colleagues, abusive behavior, and discrimination.

Reading that, you might think a fear of retaliation for speaking up could play a role in the lack of reporting, but only 31% of Millennials report a fear of retaliation from senior leadership (35% of Boomers and 39% of Gen X) and only 26% of Millennials fear retaliation from their direct supervisor (31% of Boomers and 34% of Gen X).

But this isn’t just about the risk of what Millennials don’t do.  37% of Millennials believe using social media to do research on the competition is ethical.  Other behaviors considered “ethical” through the lens of a Millennial include “friending” clients and customers, uploading personal photos at work, keeping copies of confidential documents, buying personal items on the company card, and tweeting or blogging negatively about an employer.

So, maybe Millennials just don’t care about ethics and values?

But they do. Deeply. The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey represents 7,500 college educated, fulltime employees from 29 countries.  When asked what factors influence their decision-making at work, the most influential factor was their personal values and morals.  70% of Millennials believe their personal values are shared by the organization they work for, and they rank a solid ethical foundation built on trust, integrity, and honesty as one of the three most important values to the long-term success of a business.

Finally, organizations that “do the right thing” are more likely to have Millennial employees stick around and be loyal compared to those that don’t.

If ethics and values are so important to Millennials and the jobs they chose, why doesn’t their behavior always reflect those sentiments once put to the test?

The NBES survey reveals that Millennials feel as though they have the lowest levels of influence (56%) when compared to Baby Boomers (59%) and Gen X (84%).  It’s easy to understand why a younger employee won’t speak up to report misconduct if they don’t think anyone is listening.  Paula Davis, VP Learning Product Strategy at SAI Global, provides 3 key pieces of advice to organizations seeking to adapt their E&C programs to the youth movement entering their workforce:

  • Make sure training and education is easily accessible in any situation Data from the NBES shows that Millennials are the most likely generation to utilize company resources when facing an ethical dilemma, but also feel the least prepared of anyone in the office. When you consider their “always on” relationship with social media and technology, and its effect on their attention, it makes sense that younger employees expect more exposure and variety in ethics and compliance education. Reach them with the tools and channels they prefer by complementing annual training with shorter, more frequent exercises like collaborative group workshops, as well as Gamification, experiential learning, social tools, quick videos, infographics, and mobile apps.
  • Bring Millennials into the design process of your compliance program Aside from building your program around input from compliance, SMEs, and management, consider looping in Millennial colleagues for feedback, new ideas, and a fresh, tech-forward perspective. Not only can you improve your program, but you’ll also help foster a collaborative culture and champion adoption among their peers.
  • Don’t try to solve the problem alone
    Tone at the top and tone from the middle are important, but must be sincere and meaningful, not “dialed-in” and halfhearted. Millennials don’t just have high expectations of managers to assist and mentor them, but have also been trained by their digital relationships and social media to detect when a message is genuine (or not).  This demands real engagement from managers to achieve compliance goals and develop ethical leadership. Mentorship programs can connect colleagues that may not normally interact with each other, and in doing so, help support their personal and ethical development as well.

We’re all exposed to the same risks and repercussions at work, but we don’t all see them through the same ethical lens.  No matter how people from different generations see the world around them, everyone is held to the same standards, rules, and regulations.

About the Author

Sean Freidlin is a marketing manager for SAI Global with a focus on ethics and compliance trends and education. Prior to joining SAI Global, Freidlin spent 7 years working for financial services, start-up, and ethics and compliance technology companies in digital marketing, content marketing, social media, and copywriting.  He holds a degree in business administration for finance and marketing from SUNY Buffalo and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his Millennial peers.