The Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), a merger of the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) and the Ethics & Compliance Officer Association (ECOA), published an analysis of differences in attitudes toward ethical issues among the four generational groups in the workplace of U.S. organizations. (See my August 2013 column, “Ethical Behavior Differs Among Generations.”) More recently, the prominent Washington, D.C.-based organization published a webcast with further analysis of the generational data to focus on issues for each group.


The survey covered more than 6,000 respondents: Millennials, born 1981 and after; Generation X (Gen Xers), born 1965–1980; Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964; and Traditionalists, born 1945 and prior. The sampling error is +/- 1.2% at the 95% confidence level. The report lists defining events that shape the attitudes of each group:

  • Millennials: globalization of the economy, terrorism, and rise of technology, including the internet.
  • Gen Xers: rise of the two-income family, economic uncertainties caused by oil crises in the late 1970s.
  • Boomers: women’s rights, civil rights, Vietnam War, era of economic prosperity.
  • Traditionalist: Great Depression, World War II.

The attitudes of each generation affect how best to achieve a strong ethical culture within a business organization. Management accountants should apply these findings to their employee relations and influence their company’s ethics and compliance policies and practices.

The research found that Millennials are most likely to observe misconduct at work and fail to report it. Overall, 48% of Millennials, 41% of Gen Xers, 37% of Boomers, and 27% of Traditionalists said it was likely that someone in their generation had observed misconduct. The percentages of employees in each group who believe workers would turn a blind eye to at least some kinds of misconduct are Millennials at 26%, Gen Xers at 16%, Boomers at 12%, and Traditionalists at 22%.

Lack of fear of retaliation against those reporting misconduct, expressed as a belief that the company didn’t retaliate for such action, was rather low, except for Traditionalists at 94%. This predisposition to question management without fear of reprisal compares with Millennials at 71%, Gen Xers at 74%, and Boomers at 69%. Fear of retaliation from one’s direct supervisor rather than senior management was less for all groups. In terms of fearing retaliation from one’s direct supervisor, Millennials were at 26%, Gen Xers at 34%, and Boomers at 31%. This compares to fear of retaliation from senior management, with Millennials at 31%, Gen Xers at 39%, and Boomers at 35%. The Traditionalists sample was too small for analysis in this area and others.


Millennials’ view of the ethics-related example set by senior leadership is prone to be affected by their own management level—the higher their level, generally the more favorable their view. At 82%, Millennials are the group most likely to utilize company resources in uncertain situations. This compares with Gen Xers at 78%, Boomers at 74%, and Traditionalists at 46%. Millennials feel they are the least prepared to deal with ethics situations at 77%. This compares with Gen Xers at 83%, Boomers at 81%, and Traditionalists at 79%.

Gen Xers’ view of ethics in the workplace best aligns with the organization’s policies and practices, but the group is fearful of retaliation from senior management. The portion of Gen Xers who believe their personal values align well with those of their employer is reported at 84%, compared with Millennials at 71% and Boomers at 72%. Gen Xers (87%) also were most likely to be proud to work for their company.

Of the four groups, Boomers hold the most (44%) senior leadership positions. This compares with Millennials at 14%, Gen Xers at 39%, and Traditionalists at 3%. Yet 84% of Boomers believe they don’t have influence on ethical matters in the company. This compares with 56% of Millennials and 59% of Gen Xers. Fewer Boomers (56%) also believe their company recognizes those who follow ethical standards. This compares with 64% of Millennials and Gen Xers and 91% of Traditionalists. At 61%, Boomers are most likely to fail to report wrongdoing because they’re cynical about the organization and don’t expect any corrective action by the company. This compares with 52% for both Millennials and Gen Xers. Boomers are the group least likely to trust senior leadership, with 75% believing senior management keeps its promises. This compares with 80% of Millennials, 81% of Gen Xers, and 87% of Traditionalists.

The few Traditionalists still in the workplace were seen to be the ethics champions, with 91% having a positive view of ethics matters at their organization and of the company in general so that 94% recommend their employer as a place to work. This compares with 73% of Millennials, 80% of Gen Xers, and 75% of Boomers.


Management accountants should find some relevant takeaways in the research. Millennials should reinforce the value of ethical standards and employer resources. Gen Xers need to reemphasize their role as ethical leaders and mentors and also be aware of whether protections exist for reporters of wrongdoing. Boomers should remember they really do have an influence in ethical matters. Traditionalists need to be reminded of their role as ethical examples. Management accountants at all levels of responsibility should continually be aware of the mix of generations in their organizations and how the various age groups view ethical issues.

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