An Ethical Divide

Are millennials more likely than older generations to lie to their employers and sabotage their co-workers? New research suggests the answer is an unequivocal "yes."

Monday, June 5, 2017
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The differences between millennials and older generations in the workplace have been thoroughly studied and debated. Millennials, compared to those who have preceded them, have been described as more fiercely independent, self-absorbed and likely to have a "me-first" attitude.

But what can we say about millennials when it comes to workplace ethics? Do they have more or less of an ethical compass than, say, Gen Xers or baby boomers? Do they push the limits of what's ethically accepted more so than those who came before?

Researchers at the University of Toledo College of Business and Innovation recently launched a research project aimed at answering those questions.

The study of 4,484 midwestern college employees, led by Darrell M. Crosgrove and Sonny S. Ariss, found that millennials are as much as twice as likely as their older counterparts to consider, and move forward with, violating company policies. As Crosgrove and Ariss point out in a paper they co-wrote, millennials' sense of workplace rules is more of a "shades-of-grey" variety than "right and wrong."

Crosgrove is a researcher in the department of management at the University Of Toledo's College of Business and Innovation; Ariss is chairman of the department and a fellow at the school's Center for Technological Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

David Shadovitz, editor of Human Resource Executive®, recently spoke with Crosgrove and Ariss about the findings and what they could mean for HR leaders.

Your research found that millennials are twice as likely to indicate that they would take credit for work that they did not do than non-millennials. Do you have any thoughts or theories as to why they are more prone to bending the truth in this way?

Crosgrove: We have a working theory. Basically, what it boils down to is the way the question was asked: "If nobody would find out, would you take credit for work that you didn't do?" It relates back to the fact that millennials, unlike previous generations, have grown up with digital piracy; they've grown up with, "If I copy this song or this movie or this book, nobody is being harmed, so why not do it?" I think [it's an example of] situational ethics. Because we asked, "If nobody would find out ... ," millennials felt more comfortable taking credit for work that they wouldn't have done themselves.

Ariss: They have a tendency to expect immediate gratification for their work. If being a little bit unethical or telling a little white lie would give them this credit, then they will do it.

What other ethical behaviors did you discover in your research?

Crosgrove: Sabotaging their co-workers was another. The millennials were again twice as likely [as other generations] to volunteer the fact that, if their company was facing the possibility of layoffs, they would sabotage somebody else's career in order to help protect against being laid off.

For employers, that has to be a nightmare, because sabotaging a co-worker means you are, by default, sabotaging, in some way, the work product of the company.

How about the use of social media on work time?

Crosgrove: Once again, the millennials were far more comfortable using social media on work time than non-millennials. Everything factored in, including the students [who were questioned], it's double the rate.

Ariss: The millennials are on their phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It's only natural to see them [using their phones for personal reasons] while at work, because it doesn't take that much [effort] to do. They are so quick at emailing, texting and [Snapchatting]. All these new technologies feed into their immediate gratification and their need to be wired.

Crosgrove: One of the things that we found in our interviews is that millennials, more so than non-millennials, felt that if employers could intrude in their private life -- contacting and emailing them in off-hours and expecting responses -- then what is so wrong with their taking a few minutes during the day to catch up on their private life?

Ariss: The demarcation line between work and home [and] work and leisure is becoming much more blurred.

Tell us what you learned about sick-time abuse.

Crosgrove: Perhaps the most troubling part of the sick time finding wasn't that millennials were more willing to take sick-time when they weren't actually sick, it was the fact that they did not even [view this behavior as being wrong]. Their comments made it very clear that they felt that sick time was akin to vacation time.

Coupled with the follow-up question that we asked just a few questions later, "Have you ever broken your company's ethical policies?" overwhelmingly they would say "no," despite the fact that they had previously admitted in far greater numbers to having called in sick when they weren't. They just don't understand that calling in sick is wrong when you're not sick.

Do you have any thoughts as to why this disconnect is there?

Crosgrove: I don't want to sound like I'm badmouthing millennials, but basically it boils down to the fact that they aren't as devoted to their employers as older generations are.

Part of [the reason for this could be because] they are looking to their employers to enhance their whole life, so unless they're working for a company that they genuinely feel good about, it becomes just another [job], no matter how much it may be [a part of their career path].

Do you think that the views and behaviors here are all that different than, say, the views and behaviors of other generations when they were in that age bracket?

Crosgrove: In regards to, "How did baby boomers act when they were as young as millennials are now?" unfortunately we couldn't find any reliable studies that actually addressed that issue. One of the questions we have is, "Are millennials going to grow out of this usage of sick time as they get older?" Part of the issue is millennials view the older baby boomers as being able to use sick time when they themselves are healthy, so by not taking a fake sick day, they're losing a benefit that the baby boomers are getting.

So what advice do you have for employers when it comes to addressing this?

Ariss: Employers have to become flexible and have to take the time to understand where millennials are coming from, because their priorities are a bit different than Gen X[ers] and the baby boomers. Employers have to accept this new reality and have to adjust workplace policies to be more welcoming to the millennials.

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Don't misunderstand: They are smart and hardworking, but they also walk to a different tune. They are not like the generations before them. You have very smart people, but what makes them tick is different than what makes the Gen X[ers] tick or the baby boomers tick. The employer cannot say, "It's my way or the highway," because guess what? They'll take the highway.

Ariss: Ethical training has to be applicable to the millennial generation. Employers have been doing ethics training for years, but the way they train the millennials has be different than, say, baby boomers. The training has to be custom designed for this group of employees. Employers have to accept that they need to tweak their ethical training so millennials can be more receptive of the training that you're giving them.

Crosgrove: I agree. Ethics training has to be tweaked to fit the millennial mind-set so that they absorb it and internalize it. It also needs to begin as soon as they walk in the door. That should be the case for all employees. Instead of ethics looking like an afterthought, it needs to be something that employers make known as being of primary importance.

You have a lot of watchdogs in the corporate world that are looking at making sure expense accounts aren't padded and sales figures aren't padded . . . . The Department of Justice is very heavy-handed in fining companies that violate certain rules -- so I really think that corporate America needs to beef up its ethics training and do it in a way in which millennials are able to accept it. They need to understand that it's important to the company that they behave honestly.

Do you see other HR processes being affected by the findings of your study? For instance, when it comes to candidate screening, are there changes employers should be considering?

Ariss: Knowing that you're talking to a different type of an employee [with different wants], you're going to need to tweak [your workplace policies accordingly]. One example would be: We might normally tell those being interviewed, "We would like to start at 8 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m." Well, millennials love flex time and might prefer to start at 10 a.m. and finish at 7 p.m. If you're an employer that's interested in interviewing a person who has all the credentials that you're looking for, except his or her time coming to work [doesn't match your policies], then you should be ready to accept this exception.

I understand that you also followed your initial survey with a survey of students, asking them many of the same questions. Can you share what the findings revealed?

Crosgrove: Interestingly, at a rate that was twice as much as millennials, they felt that the university's academic integrity codes were just too strict. I don't know of a university that has an integrity policy that's Draconian. They clearly spell out the basics -- no plagiarism, do your own work -- but millennials felt that the policies were just too Draconian for them. That means that when [they enter] the workplace, they probably are going to feel the same way.

I guess these findings don't bode well as far as the future is concerned.

Crosgrove: Many universities are moving away from standardized tests because they're aware that the answers are out there for sale on the Internet. They're taking a lot of steps that are making the educational process more immune to this kind of cheating, but it's never going to be fully immune.

Ariss: That's right. Universities will never be fully immune because . . . the more we try to become immune to these actions, the smarter the students are at trying to break through this immunity.


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