Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

AccountingWeb recently reported on a study by the Ethics Resource Center titled Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics that “showed unexpected and disturbing findings that may portend a future downward shift in business ethics.”

The study examined the ethics of four generational groups: the Traditionalists (born 1925-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Gen Xers (born 1965-1980), and Millenials (born 1981-2000).  A brief summary of the main findings (as reported on are as follows:

1) The younger the worker, the more his or her perceptions about ethics will be influenced by social interaction.

2) The older the employee, the more hierarchy, structure, and visible company commitment matter.

3) Culture makes a difference for all generations, but for younger workers, culture is the sum of their interactions with other individuals, much of which is with coworkers. Older workers get their cues about culture from the company’s stated values, messages from the top, and their beliefs about the organization as a whole.
From a behavioral perspective, of course, ethics are not viewed as static thing-like entities.  Instead behavior analysts speak of ethical behavior.  From this view, ethics are actions (verbs) rather than abstract things (nouns).  Differences in ethical behavior across generations can reflect the changing cultural conditions that affects the environment in which said generation is socialized.  

For a recent take on ethics and values from a behavioral perspective see Ruiz and Broche (2007) article “Values and the Scientific Culture of Behavior Analysis.”

What do you think of the behavioral approach to ethics?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

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4 Comments on "Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics"

  1. I like your opinion here!

  2. The younger generation is very social, so this doesn’t surprise me. Really interesting information here!

  3. So, what I’m understanding is that as time has gone on, each generation has been taught to base their judgments on perception and social interaction rather than on what is claimed. I can see how that can lead to issues, but at the same time, it’s good to know that the younger generation think more for themselves.

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