How Different Generations Approach Professional Ethics in Modern-Day Business
Updated: Jul 27
By Mariam Riza FCCA, CPA, MSc
21 August 2019
5 minutes read time
In 2015, there was an equal proportion of the generations at work. By 2030, next generation Millennials and Generation Z will collectively consist of 50 – 70% of workforce, while Baby Boomers fall to 8% in the silver tsunami exodus.
This will have consequences on professional ethics – as previously, generations counterbalanced ethical attitudes; now, in increasingly disruptive VUCA environments, renewed attention is needed to understand varying ethical appetites of these differing cohorts.
But firstly, who are these generations at work?
The Multigenerational Workforce
Considering socio-political, economic, and technological changes that influenced the generation’s lives are insightful indicators as to their behavior and mindset.
Baby Boomers - born 1946 -1964
This generation had post-World-War growth and boom. Having built many organisations of today, they are cost conscious, level-headed, rigorous business leaders. Preference for hard-work, face-to-face communications, and formal discipline.
Generation X - born 1965 – 1979
Working under the shadow of Baby Boomers, and in increasingly turbulent socio-economic times Generation X pushed boundaries, easened work-life, were good organisational peace keepers, and problem solving collaborators.
Generation Y (Millennials) - born 1980 – 1995
Millennials were greatly influenced by childhood adoption of technology. This broadened their circle of reference, social engagement, and online networking. Passionate views on inclusion, social consciousness, and globalization countered fears of terrorism and corruption, as the world explored quantitative easing and widening wealth inequality.
Generation Z - born 1996 – 2010
The first generation born into digital technology, fully appreciative, and determined to use it for better. They saw the GFC hit their parents, and thus are expected to hard-working, self-driven collaborators, blending both offline and online worlds.
With the onset of global economic slowdown; dampened prosperity & social mobility - confidence in pillars of institutions like government, business, and leaders remain low in young Millennials, Generation Z, and sandwiched Generation X in mature markets.
With deepening limited resources and urgency to balance profit with ESG (Environmental, Social & Corporate Governance) protections of people and planet – professionals may overlook ethical pitfalls to get ahead.
The rise in technology, hyper-connected social & digital systems challenge previous ethical paradigms as the methods of business evolve.
How this augmentation aligns with traditional Accountancy ethics, processes, and reporting may vary.
Generational Differences in Code of Ethics of Professional Accountants
All generations agree on importance of integrity and 65% report misconduct, increasing with severity of crime. The next generation particularly expects broadened organisational justice. However, a report by Ethics Resource Centre found 35% of younger workers, as opposed to older colleagues, were more pressured to break rules and reported less on noticed misconduct, especially if they felt it saved jobs – speaking to their preference of distributive vs procedural justice.
However, the longer they spent in their roles, the more likely they did so, explaining exhibited behaviors of Baby Boomers and Generation X in more responsible reporting.
While Professional Accountants expect to act in impartial objectivity, factors like good ethical culture in organisations including mechanisms & consequences, support, resources, & training aid in adoption.
Millennials look to people and support, Generation X prefer adequate information - internal & external, and Baby Boomers take on the role of responsibility if tone at the top was lacking.
With globally connected social media, virality and information dissemination occurs swift and wide with propensity of unwary scandals. Validity of claims or professional skepticism may be something to be desired.
Professional competence and due care
Common frustration shared about the next generation is the sense of over-confidence. With safety nets of technology and open information on the internet, they rank highly on self-efficacy, extending themselves in areas of their skill lacking till training is provided. They turn to family (45%) for advice while their older peers - 40% turn to inhouse company resources, and 25% to family.
While Baby Boomers relied on tenure, experience, and formally set guidelines, Millennials and Generation Z use varied sources to learn and satisfy competence shortfalls. Generation X prefer to collaborate and leverage on shared competencies.
The generations approach rigour in maintaining confidentiality from entirely different lenses.
Frequent data breaches, cyber-attacks, exploitation and erosion of privacy, while arguably can desensitize the younger generation’s view on confidentiality - fear, distrust and heightened urgency of its value is emerging.
Millennials (22%), Baby Boomers (13%), and Generation X (18%) keep copies of confidential documents, and <10% of Millennials and Generation X use work software for personal use.
Interestingly, in whistleblowing, 95% of younger generations start with in-house mechanisms, directed to trusted supervisors, before taking it outside the organization, if left untreated.
Baby Boomers are commonly perceived as gold standard of conforming to expected behavior, maintaining work-life segregation and ethics. Generation X building on as collaborative relationship-builders, toed the line, to a middle ground. Millennials are seen to disrupting the rules of standardised behaviour, in favour of technology-enabled work-life integration.
Varying views of acceptable professional work versus personal boundaries can see younger generation as open sharers of information on social platforms. 36% friend their clients online, 40% post about their workplace, and 37% use social media for work investigations, all of which may seem outlandish for their older peers, but reflective of new norm, and thus ethical paradigms need to be revisited.
1. All generations generally strive to be ethical with some variations in generational attitudes and exposure to modern-day techno-advancements and VUCA world.
2. Implementation of in-house ethical culture and programmes; with communication of such through appropriate channels and messaging.
3. Review and reset ethical considerations in light of new technology, digital and data policies, and social media.
4. Be more social - inhouse peer networks and leadership to drive institutional memory in ethical behaviour.
5. Cross-generational pairing and reverse mentoring to bridge gaps and opinions.
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By Mariam Riza FCCA, CPA, MSc