«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Generation bashing is nothing new: “Bemoaning the self-involvement of young people is a perennial adult activity” (Rosenbloom, 2008). Yet contemporary critics are singling out this new generation for particularly harsh criticism concerning its lack of work ethic. While “members of other generations were considered somewhat spoiled in their youth, [members of this group] feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement” (Alsop, 2008, p. 2F) and are “more American Idle than American Idol” (Generation Y, 2009, p. 47).
The object of criticism is the Millennial Generation, also known as Generation Y, defined here as those born in 1982 or later. Children of the Baby Boomers, they are the largest and most racially diverse generation, almost 40% minority, and the fastest growing segment of the workforce (Armour, 2005). Their managers, however, consistently express exasperation concerning Millennials’ sense of entitlement, difficulty in taking direction, self-indulgence, greed, shortsightedness, poor skills, and lack of work ethic (CareerBuilder, 2007; Harris Interactive, 2008;
Little empirical study exists, however, concerning Millennials’ perspectives on work and ethics, particularly in public relations. To fill this gap, we received a Public Relations Society of America Foundation grant to survey Millennial agency practitioners about their relationships with their employers and their approaches to ethical decision making. Our goal is to extend theoretical development in ethics and employee-organization relations (EOR) while providing agency management with guidance on how best to train and mentor this new generation.
Generational studies can be inherently problematic in that they can promote stereotyping.
Many studies, however, have demonstrated that generational demographics often translate into demonstrable psychographic differences, particularly in regard to respect for authority and workplace expectations (Gursoy, Maier, & Chi, 2008; Weston, 2006). In fact, our results demonstrate both wide differences in individual decision making and strong commonalities in general expectations concerning workplace ethics, both of which provide insight into productively managing these young professionals.
Literature Review and Research Questions
A Harris Interactive (2008) poll of professionals found that Millennials expect to work hard, although their older colleagues (Gen X, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation) don’t perceive them as hardworking, and they respect members of older generations, although that respect is not returned.
In fact, according to scholars, Millennials are more accepting of rules and authority than their predecessors, Gen X, and they are more likely to exhibit trust in authority figures (Hershatter & Epstein, 2006). Millennials don’t do well with ambiguity and risk, however: “They’re very reliant on people to tell them what they need to do.... they’re not very good at accepting end-line responsibility” (Hershatter & Epstein, para. 17). They are also conflict averse and seek consensus (Berger & Reber, 2006; Winograd & Hais, 2008) to the extent that “Millennials are alarmed by the prospect of even apparent ethical dilemmas or conflicts” and believe conflict can be resolved through more information gathering (e.g., Chobi, 2008, para. 4). Our first research question, then, asks 231
How do Millennial public relations agency employees approach ethical dilemmas?
The few extant empirical studies demonstrate that Millennials distinguish between innocuous (i.e., “white lie”) types of transgressions and serious breaches of laws and ethics (Freestone & Mitchell, 2004; Pelton & True, 2004). The basis for these distinctions is a respect for authority, as noted above, which leads to deontological (rules-based) reasoning, as well as a valuing of trust, which leads to a concurrent use of utilitarian (consequence-based) reasoning. According to Bowen (2005), however, combining deontological and utilitarian reasoning is not a pragmatic alternative for public relations practitioners: Mixing paradigms “leaves no single approach as the clear or safe choice.... Mixing paradigms to this extent might lead to confusion for both internal and external publics” (p. 209). Instead, she developed a “layperson-accessible practical model for ethical decision making” based on deontological Kantian principles (Bowen, 2005, p. 192), which she successfully tested on older, well-established practitioners. Other studies have found that older practitioners tend to follow rules and take deontological approaches more frequently than do younger practitioners (Coleman & Wilkins, 2009; Kim & Choi, 2003; Pratt, 1994). This study asks Do Millennial public relations agency employees find Bowen’s model helpful for making ethical decisions?
Some researchers have criticized rational approaches, such as Bowen’s model, as privileging white male forms of ethical decision making (Cortese, 1990; Gilligan, 1982), although empirical results to date have been mixed on this point (Coleman & Wilkins, 2009). Thus, we also ask Do Millennial public relations agency employees differ by gender or ethnicity in how helpful they find Bowen’s model?
Additionally, the public relations literature is divided on whether practitioners of any age find codes of ethics or education and training helpful in making ethical decisions (see Bowen, 2004; Curtin & Boynton, 2001; Gale & Bunton, 2005), leading us to ask Do Millennial public relations agency employees find educational training and codes of ethics helpful for making ethical decisions?
In terms of Millennials’ expectations of others, in a nationwide survey of 37,000 undergraduates, 39% said high ethical standards were their top consideration in choosing an employer (Green, 2006). Additionally, 79% wanted to work for a company that was socially responsible, 64% said they were loyal to their employers because of the socially responsible values held, and 56% said they would not work for a socially irresponsible company (Cone, 2006). An international survey conducted two years later confirmed this trend: 88% of Millennials wanted to work for a group with matching social responsibility values, and 92% of U.S. respondents said they would leave an employer whose values didn’t match theirs (PriceWaterhouse-Coopers, 2008).
In fact, preliminary research suggests that Millennials, contrary to popular opinion, don’t tend to complain about the amount or type of work they do, they complain about a work culture that isn’t meaningful (Gerdes, 2007; Gursoy et al., 2008). In a study of public relations professionals, Blum and Tremarco (2008) found that for those respondents who had been with their firm for two years or fewer, which would include Millennials, job satisfaction was significantly correlated with the belief that “My firm has strong values—and lives them,” and job satisfaction was significantly correlated with perceived ethical dealings with employees (p. 15).
This connection between job satisfaction and ethics has also been explored through the lens of relationship management theory, particularly the subfield of organization-public relations (OPR) 232 known as employee-organization relations (EOR). Scholars can use EOR to evaluate relationships between employees and their organizations in terms of four relationship outcomes: satisfaction, trust, control mutuality, and commitment (Hon & Grunig, 1999). Trust is the belief that the organization is fair and competent and keeps its promises. Satisfaction is the extent to which an organization meets positive expectations. Control mutuality measures satisfaction with the amount of influence employees have in the relationship, and commitment refers to the extent to which the relationship is worth the time and effort required to maintain it.
Kim (2007) found that one antecedent of good relationship outcomes was organizational justice. Employees have an expectation of “fair behavior by management and fair organizational policies and systems” (Kim, 2007, p. 191). Additionally, practitioners believe ethical decision making should be marked by respect, trustworthiness, and openness, which are key aspects of good relations, suggesting a tight link between relationship management theory and ethical decision making (Boynton, 2006). Another study (Kang, 2009) found a link between organizational environment and ethics, but the response rate was too low to lend much validity to the findings. To further explore this link, we ask What is the relationship, if any, between EOR and Millennial public relations agency employees’ ethical decision making?
Given the lack of a sampling frame for this demographic, we recruited survey participants through a mixture of convenience and snowball sampling. PRSA sent a solicitation letter and two follow-up reminders on our behalf to people who had been members for no more than 2 years.
Because this list included those outside our target group, two qualifying questions were used to ensure that respondents were Millennials and that they worked at an agency. To avoid recruiting only those participants who were the most professionalized (i.e., members of PRSA), we also solicited participants through online channels (blogs, PR Open Mic, Facebook) and encouraged participants to share the survey link with fellow Millennial agency employees.
Following a pretest, which resulted in slight changes to the wording of a few measures, we posted the survey online at SurveyMonkey. A total of 433 people accessed the survey, but 152 were not of the correct age and/or not employed by agencies, leaving 281 qualified respondents. Of those, 223 answered the majority of questions, for a completion rate of 79%. In accordance with IRB guidelines, respondents could skip questions; thus, the total number of respondents varies from question to question. Given the sampling method, we cannot say how representative this group is of the population or accurately generalize our findings within a certain margin of error to the larger population. Since our purpose at this point was descriptive, however, we believe that 223 respondents allowed us to paint a broad picture of Millennial agency employees and their concerns.
To address how respondents would solve ethical dilemmas, the survey included three hypothetical scenarios (Appendix A). Closed-ended choices were provided for each, with each succeeding scenario offering a narrower range of possible options. A number of measures were used to test the utility of the main components of Bowen’s (2005) model of ethical decision making (Figure 1). The first step requires respondents to exhibit autonomy: Can they act based on reason alone? Three 5-point Likert-scaled questions asked respondents to rate their autonomy in terms of perceived pressures from workplace politics, the need for job security, and personal ambition. Three questions used a 5-point scale (significantly to insignificantly) to measure the degree of impact each of these three factors had on ethical decision making. Three more questions asked whether these factors resulted in more or less ethical decision making or made no difference.
233 Figure 1. Main Components of Bowen’s Practical Model for Ethical Decision Making The model provides six principles or rules to be applied during the subsequent two steps of the decision-making process. Respondents were asked to rate how useful they would find each of the six on a 5-point scale (“not useful at all” to “very useful”). Respondents rated the utility of education/training and PRSA’s code of ethics using the same scale.
To measure relationship outcomes (control mutuality, trust, commitment, satisfaction), we used the 5-point Likert-scaled items from Hon and Grunig’s (1999) study (Cronbach’s α ranged from.886 to.958: The full results of the EOR portion of the survey were reported previously and are used here only to illuminate the relationship between EOR and ethical decision making). Demographic questions addressed gender, race/ethnicity, agency size, and income. Open-ended comments were sought throughout the survey to lend context to the quantitative findings.
How Millennials Approach Ethical Dilemmas The first ethical dilemma addressed job security by having participants respond to a request from the boss to not disclose the corporate ties of a medical source when pitching a story to the media (Appendix A). Most respondents (53.5%) skirted the dilemma by saying they would refer the issue to a superior and ask for help. Just over a fourth (26.5%) agreed to the request. Another 15.0% said they would reject the assignment outright, despite running a risk of being fired; the remaining 5.0% said they would make the pitch as requested but reveal the truth if pressed.
In the second dilemma, a colleague asks for volunteers to pose as citizens at a town meeting and either ask an easy question of the agency’s client or a difficult question of the opponent. Again, most respondents (69.5%) avoided the situation by waiting for someone else to volunteer, even though it meant less chance of career advancement. A total of 22.1% would volunteer to ask either question; 8.4% would ask the easy question only. The last scenario, involving spying on an activist group, forced respondents to choose an action option. The results were almost evenly split: 52% would pose as a member of the group; just under half (48%) would decline the assignment.