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Photo Credit: VC Voices (http://vcvoices.org/2016/04/millennials/)

A recent Wall Street Journal blog article highlighted concerns about the “me-first” millennial generation pouring into the workplace in the near future. According to the article, millennials seem to care less about institutes and authority and as a result there is a fear that they would be more likely to sacrifice compliance for their own professional needs and self-interests. This prospect might frighten those who are in charge of corporate compliance and therefore incentives must be developed to encourage millennials that engaging in compliance is in fact the best course of action to advance their own self-interests.

We need to remember that corruption is not solely about morale. As Abdul Alkebsi, Deputy Director of Programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE)asserts, “corruption is about incentive, not about morale. Everyone knows about morale, but what matters is their incentive for compliance”. If we think this argument makes sense, we need to know how perceptions toward incentives have changed from one generation to another. This is because certain perceptions of incentives might not appeal to different people and generations.

Let’s assume that a previous generation tended to care more about institutes and authority than the millennial generation. First, they might be more inclined to follow a “one-for-all mindset”. This would mean that a previous generation might be more inclined to act in an unethical manner in order to advance the interests of their organization. For them, the incentive is for the organization to do well because they might see themselves as an integral part of it. Second, the previous generations generally have more respect for authority than the millennial generation and as a result they might be easily tempted to engage in unethical behavior by senior management.

To defend the millennial generation at this point, they might not act in the same manner of previous generations due to the fact that Generation Y tends to be more focused on professional growth and advancement. They are less likely to believe that helping the organization as a whole is directly linked to their own self-interests. Also, the millennial generation tends to be more defiant to authority than past generations and is more likely to question decisions from senior management. The millennials have lived through an era where free competition was highly valued, individual creativity was prioritized in the social atmosphere, consistent employment disappeared globally, and public discourse focused on individuality. They seem to rely less on institutes and authority and instead their incentives are more focused around their own survival and prosperity.

It might sound unjust that the upcoming generation could violate compliance for their own personal needs, without thinking of the organization that they belong to and the damage non-compliance could do to it. However, since the perception of the millennials is that they have a “me-first” workplace mentality, they will naturally act in terms of what is good or bad for their own advancement. If misconduct seems beneficial and worth trying, even it’s a little bit risky, they might be inclined to do so. However, if it seems personally risky for a millennial to engage in unethical behavior, he or she will be more likely to not act in this manner, even if it would seem to benefit the business as a whole, or if an authority figure pressures them to act in an unethical manner.

It’s not helpful to see the millennial generation as potential rule-breakers. Rather, they’ll be clever enough to evaluate what is in their own self-interest and act in a manner that advances their own future development. Companies need to understand this trend among millennials and create incentives that show that engaging in compliance and ethics actually serves the “me-first” interests of this generation. To prevent compliance from becoming just a vague word, management should consider creating incentives that are in line with practical expectations millennials have in the workplace, as well as sharing their values of compliance within their organization.

Taewan Jung is an ASAN Academy Fellow at CIPE