The millennials are starting to run our major corporations.
You can quibble about the precise dates, but they’re people born between the 1980s and the year 2000. Already many have reached the C Suite or are knocking on the door.
The earliest part of the cohort is over 30 and the rest will soon be in senior managerial and leadership roles. In some companies such as EY, they already make up 60% of their workforce.
As these millennials take business leadership, how will they affect the way our large organisations are run? In particularly, what difference will they make to ethical leadership?
“The millennial generation, now entering into employment, will reshape the world of work. Are you ready?”
PWC Study of Millennials Impact
To answer this basic question of whether millennials will be any more ethical than current business leaders, the following uses a wide range of analytical and research material; critical issues include:
- The next gen of crooks
- Pressure to misbehave
- The values of millennials
- CSR influence
- The digital divide
- The next gen ethical leaders
The next gen of crooks?
Although much is made of the differences between the millennials’ and the rest, it seems their career goals, employee engagement, preferred leadership styles and desire for recognition are much the same as those from previous generations. 
So when it comes to ethics in business we can’t necessarily be sure they’ll lead any differently to earlier bosses. In fact for this generation
“Research is especially sparse with regard to its moral views and the decision frameworks used for ethical decisions.”
Based on the limited evidence therefore, they seem just as likely to produce the next Kenneth Lay of Enron, Bernard Ebbers of Worldcom, Conrad Black of Hollinger International, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco or Bernard Madoff.
The much reported stereotypical view of the millennials as narcissistic, needing hand-holding at work and generally high maintenance is just that, and does not hold up under close examination.
So is this new generation likely to produce yet another spectacular crooked leader with a severe ethics deficit?
When Pew Research asked a sample of millennials about their priorities they did not reply for example “making money” or becoming famous. Instead, they said what was important was being a good parent, having a successful marriage and helping others in need—hardly the makings of a Bernard Madoff or Kenneth Lay. 
Pressure to misbehave
It’s probably wishful thinking to argue the millennials will have a benign influence on ethical leadership. For example, the initial analysis of a 2011 study by the Ethics Resource Centre showed:
“…unexpected and disturbing findings that may portend a future downward shift in business ethics.”
Younger workers for instance are more likely than their older colleagues to feel pressure from others to break ethical rules and they see doing so as a way of coping with the work environment.
On a more positive note the millennials show the greatest tendency of all generations to observe and report misconduct at work—this includes lying to employees (22%), abusive behaviour (21%), abuse of company resource (21%), and discrimination (18%).
And of those who observed unethical behaviour at work, well over half (67%) felt able to report it. For example they drew attention to stealing, falsifying reports, goods/service failing to meet specifications, and offering improper payments or bribes to public officials.
Somewhat more disturbing though, is the relatively high proportion of millennials who think certain unacceptable behaviour in the workplace is ethical:
This hardly suggests the emergence of an obvious future ethical leader of one of our large corporations.
The values of millennials
Sometimes called digital natives, millennials have some different expectations to others about what they want from life. The values they bring to the leadership role has implications for their potential ethical role of the future.
When it comes to how a company is run, more than three out of four millennials say they consider a positive culture is desirable or essential for their ideal work situation. Translated into leadership actions this alone could eventually transform the companies they run.
Millennials also think it’s important to be highly engaged in their work and consequently they will understand that urge in others. This too could mean some major shifts in culture when you consider the present abysmal engagement rates within so many organisations.
Various studies show many young people hold an unfortunate attitude towards cheating. Three out of four US students for instance, cheat at school, which they put down to the pressures they’re under to succeed. Cheating in UK schools though remains relatively rare. 
Cheating as a student could be a sign the person will be a poor ethical leader of an organisation. In fact, a plausible interpretation of the so-called “cheating” is it is merely millennials pursuing their natural drive to share information, collaborate and joint problem solve.
But when not cheating becomes more of an individual preference than a conviction about what’s right and wrong it’s surely an indication something’s going awry.
We need ethical leaders of organisations driven by strong core beliefs. That is, bosses able to pursue core values through the rough waters all organisations must navigate. Will the cheating millennials who enter high level leadership roles have sufficient convictions to carry them through these challenging situations, doing what’s right, rather than what’s expedient?
The millennials are the first generation to grow up alongside corporate social responsibility. Most have never known a world without CSR reports on critical causes such as climate change, poverty and the need to promote diversity, equity and transparency.
In 2008 well over two out of three Millennials actively looked to join employers with CSR values that matched their own; most (86%) said they’d consider leaving an employer whose values no longer met their expectations. Three years later though, these high levels had reduced somewhat. Presumably as reality about the nature of the real work scene sunk in. 
CSR does more than shape the millennials. It influences their personal decisions from what they buy to where they work. Their in-built tendency to weigh social and environmental commitments when making critical financial choices may become a significant factor in affecting their approach to ethical leadership.
For example, amongst millennials there is greater concern than the rest of the population about issues such a poverty, hunger, the environment, human rights and education.
What most separates millennials from other generations is their digital capabilities and preferences, Who else for instance checks their smart phone on average 43 times a day?
They are the first generation to be in continual communication with friends and family, forming a virtual real-time existence with third parties. While this could improve productivity, an obsession with staying in touch could mean they seldom concentrate on their work for long.
Having grown up with easy access to information through the internet and continuously sharing and collaborating with their own generation, the millennials will expect to do the same as business leaders.
This may not directly affect their ethical stance. But their comfort with transparency and shared information will make it harder for them and others to avoid facing up to the meaning of difficult ethical choices encountered at work. Research after all, shows information sharing is a more practical and ethical approach to conducting commerce. 
One factor pushing the millennials to be more ethical leaders than their predecessors is their expectation they’ll operate in an environment of honesty, trust and integrity in the work place and in all organisational dealings.
This stems partly from their built-in need to freely give and receive what other generations have felt less comfortable sharing.
The digital divide will therefore make the millennial generation one of change. They’ll be less constrained by existing norms and their energy will help them break away from stereotype.
They already tend to hold less positive views about company ethical culture and they will surely shake up business and presumably how they tackle their ethical leadership role. 
Next gen ethical leaders
On the most optimistic view millennials will make ethical leadership in business no longer desirable, but inevitable. This is because they bring somewhat different values and a rather challenging mind set to what a business should be about. They are part of a
“…perfect storm of trends converging in a way that will generate an actual revolution in business”. 
These trends include the decline in traditional management, the internet revolution and the millennials entering the work force.
How far these trends really will bring about a revolution in business is an open question. What we know for sure is, when asked what’s important in their life, only around 15% of millennials studied say “Having a high paying career”. Instead, they value family life for instance, far more. Could this be a sign they might pursue more ethical leadership?
Similarly, since many of them are genuinely concerned with social issues such as global warming and the importance of sustainability, their concerns could imply they’ll take a greater interest in providing ethical leadership in these areas.
However, taking all the evidence in account, it’s hard to justify any strong claim the millennials will be significantly more ethical business leaders than those from whom they’re taking over.
Let’s hope that early conclusion turns out to be premature.
2 E.Wright et al, Exploring millennials: A surprising inconsistency in making ethical decisions, Journal of Academic and Business Ethics Vol 9 December 2014
3 D. Schawbel, Why You Can’t Ignore Millennials Forbes, 9/04/2013
4 Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics, NBES, 2011
5 Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Work Place, Pwc, 2011 and 2012
6 P. Dannar, Millennials: What they Offer Our Organisations and How Leaders can Make Sure they Deliver, Journal of Values-Based Leadership Vol 6 2013
7 Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers, ERC 2009 National Business Ethics Survey
8 J. McManus Warnell, Engaging Millennials for Ethical Leadership, Business Expert Press, 2015
9. J.Notter and M. Grant, When Millennials Take Over, Idea Publishing 2015
10 Doug Wilson, Preference or Conviction? The Damage Situational Ethics Is Doing To Leadership Trust BizCatalyst360