Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials – what does business ethics mean to them, and how do you engage them with ethical issues in the workplace?

Understanding the different characteristics of the generations is fundamental in building a culture founded on ethical values. 

Organisations which take ethics seriously are aware of the importance of creating an organisational culture based on shared values. Given the changing demographics of today’s workforce, organisations are seeking to create working environments that value differences and bridge the generational gap. Differences in generational perspectives and work styles can make this difficult task even more challenging, as misunderstandings and contradictions may arise.

Some organisations are concerned that they are not reaching the younger members of their workforce with their conventional ethics messaging. A survey by Deloitte indicated that millennial talent is more critical of their employer’s behaviour, and so the ability to engage this cohort is a key way to improve an employer’s brand.

The challenge posed by a multigenerational workplace means that businesses need to ensure they understand the main characteristics of different generations and act to attract and inspire talent from each age group. For example, for younger workers, culture is the sum of their interactions with other individuals and co-workers. Older workers, on the other hand, are more influenced by the company’s stated values, messages from the top and their beliefs about the organisation as a whole.

Research has shown that it is particularly important to understand and address generational differences and tensions, but also to seize the opportunities that a multigenerational workforce can offer. The use of metrics and benchmarking to segment the workforce can be useful to understand the employee’s expectations from their job at different stages of their career. However, it is also important to focus on the similarities among age groups, encouraging them to work together and learn from each other.

The implementation of an effective ethics programme and a strong ethics culture that reaches all the generations is a way to motivate every employee to do the right thing and to feel valued by their company. The use of ethics ambassadors is one example of how this can be to achieved. Because Millennials are networkers and familiar with new technologies, they can make good ethics ambassadors; at the same time older employees also make great ambassadors as they may have greater understanding of the business and a more established reputation for integrity.

Most organisations consider that making communications about ethics engaging is the key, rather than developing materials specifically aimed at a certain age group. However, ethical messaging does need to be changed and updated over time so that messaging reflects current views on what is, or is not acceptable practice; for example on issues such as social media use, or sexual harassment or diversity. This can be one of the reasons why there can be a gulf of understanding between Millennials and longer serving employees.

Nonetheless, if your organisation has identified that a specific cohort needs specific attention, here are some suggestions of different ways to communicate ethics messaging effectively across the different generational groups

Millennials/Generation Y (born between 1983 and 2004)

  • Communicate the company’s commitment to ethics in terms of people, relationships and integrity in the way people treat each other.

  • Focus on messaging from colleagues and immediate supervisors – those individuals who are more similar to Millennials and therefore more likely to be influential to them.

  • Emphasise the resources of the ethics/compliance programme as opportunities to interact with knowledgeable people who can provide guidance and support.

  • Build opportunities for discussion and interaction into ethics and compliance training programmes.

  • Provide ways for Millennials to give input into company standards and systems.

  • Communicate that when employees report misconduct, they can check back and interact with the ethics office throughout the investigation process.

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1982)

  • Make advice and standards easily accessible; when facing an ethical dilemma, Gen X-ers’ ability to review codes of conduct and standards will make big difference in how they handle the situation in front of them.

  • For those who supervise Gen X-ers, make sure they are aware that this group needs advice. Gen X-ers need to know that counsel is available when it is needed.

Boomers and Traditionalists (born between 1922-1964)

  • Communicate the company’s commitment to ethics in terms of principles and the provision of formal systems.

  • Focus on messaging from the hierarchy above this generation (i.e. business executives).

  • Emphasise the resources of the ethics programme as established systems and trusted leaders.

  • Provide ways for Boomers and Traditionalists to share their experiences using the company standards and systems with other employees.

  • Communicate that when employees report misconduct, they will be protected and informed throughout the investigations process.

Although much has been written about ‘preparing for Gen Y (Millenials)’, while this is of course important in meeting the needs of the future workforce, it’s equally as important to remember that other generations will continue to represent a large proportion of the workforce for some time to come. All employees – no matter when they were born - will benefit from innovative ways of communicating the importance of doing business ethically.

Guendalina Dondé is a research assistant at the Institute of Business Ethics
More information from the latest IBE Briefing Business Ethics Across the Generations

generations  generation X  millennials 

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