Examining the Millennials' Ethical Profile: Assessing Demographic Variations in Their Personal Value Orientations

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
AuthorJames Weber,Michael J. Urick
Examining the Millennials’
Ethical Profile: Assessing
Demographic Variations in
Their Personal Value
The Millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000, are
poised to have a profound impact on our society but are
often treated as a homogenous generation. While some
prior research on generations posits that there are a
number of consistencies across a generation, others argue
that differences may emerge and distinguish individuals
within a generation. Based on prior business ethics litera-
ture, this research dissects the Millennial’s personal value
orientations (PVO) to explore if demographic differences,
such as gender, amount of work experience, business dis-
cipline specialization, and academic performance reveal
variations in the ethical profile manifested by Millennials.
James Weber is a Professor of Business Ethics and Management, Executive Director, Institute
for Ethics in Business, Palumbo – Donahue School of Business, Duquesne University,
Pittsburgh, PA. E-mail: weberj@duq.edu. Michael J. Urick is a Graduate Director, Master of
Science in Management, Assistant Professor, Management and Operational Excellence, Alex G.
McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA.
E-mail: michael.urick@email.stvincent.edu.
This research was made possible by a grant from the A.J. and Sigismunda Palumbo Charitable
Trust, 2015.
C2017 W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by
Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington
Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 122:4 469–506
The results from this research show that there are indeed
numerous and significant statistical differences within
the Millennials’ PVO dataset. Variations are found when
exploring nearly every demographic variable considered.
Implications of these findings are discussed.
Though the birth years vary slightly depending on publica-
tion, the Millennial generation (also known as Generation Y)
has often been defined as individuals born between 1980
and 2000 (Costanza et al. 2012). This generation constitutes
roughly 80 million people globally and, as a group, exceeds the
population of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) by
four million. In fact, there are a greater number of 26-year-olds
alive in 2016 in the United States than any single group of individ-
uals of any other given age (Ethics Resource Center 2013). The
arrival of this large generational group into American society as
employees, consumers, and investors is unprecedented.
Decades ago, the Baby Boomer generation provoked overpower-
ing changes in how business was carried out, products were mar-
keted, and investments were made (Howe and Strauss 1992).
While not the sole change agent affecting change in the 1970s and
1980s, Baby Boomers were clearly involved in dramatic changes as
the United States’ public policy turned toward numerous social
policy legislation and regulation efforts (Russell 1993). Equal
employment, gender and racial discrimination, and the long-
standing caveat emptor (buyer beware) thinking was challenged by
numerous personal liability protection laws. Environmentalists,
spearheaded by the Sierra Club and other nonprofit organizations,
brought to society’s attention air and water pollution caused by
businesses, as well as the ozone layer destruction due to an
increase use of automobile transportation and industrial produc-
tion. The nation’s energy plan was confronted by protesters argu-
ing that nuclear power was unfair, as proven by the 1979 Three
Mile Island disaster. Clearly the arrival of a large population of citi-
zens into the American workforce, marketplace and investment
community can radically change how business is conducted and
how individuals are treated (Russell 1987).
History tells us that it is critical to have a clear understanding of
the characteristics that describe an emerging generation as it influ-
ences our society (Edmunds and Turner 2002). As we observe the
current scene in the United States, Millennials are a powerful
group in the workforce and are quickly becoming established lead-
ers of business organizations, a large population of consumers,
and a significant pool of investors. They are a different generation
than their parents and grandparents.
Deal et al. (2010) found that Millennials treat technology as
“their sixth sense,” clearly distinguishing them from other, previ-
ous technologically limited generations. Similarly, VanMeter et al.
(2013) report that Millennials’ ethical ideology will profoundly influ-
ence their views about leadership style, teamwork, and judgments
about ethical violations, marking a changed business atmosphere.
While understood as the most educated and technology-savvy pop-
ulation in the history of humankind (Philips 2014), we still know
very little about what these individuals believe in or how they view
the world from an ethical perspective.
Modern organizations present the most age-diverse workforce
ever with various age groups (including Millennials and Baby
Boomers) potentially having different viewpoints and perceptions
(Lyons et al. 2015). These perceptions of differences can lead to
stereotypes, preconceptions, workplace tensions/conflict, and/or
challenging intergenerational interactions (Finkelstein et al. 2013).
Some of these tensions can be directly related to perceptions of per-
ceptions of Millennials’ values (Urick et al. 2016).
Of note, it is risky to assume that, as a member of a generation,
each individual will exhibit exactly the same characteristics (Urick
2014). Just as it is dangerous to generalize the traits of any demo-
graphic group’s members (gender, religion, race, etc.), not all mem-
bers of an age-based generational category will exactly fit the
stereotypes attributed to the group. Yet, many generational
researchers have attempted to do just that: identify traits generaliz-
able to most members of particular generational groupings
(Costanza and Finkelstein 2015). Furthermore, such stereotypes
are common to public discourse under the guise of academic
research (e.g., see the often cited Kupperschmidt [2000] publica-
tion). This may be, in part, because there is much work that needs
to be done in understanding generational phenomena (Lyons and
Kuron 2014).
Part of the misunderstanding of generational phenomena is due
to a lack of clarity of what generations are. For example, research-
ers note that, though biological age groups are a common

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