Intergenerational ethics in the workplace

If the average person in the street describes business ethics as “being fair” then by this definition we have failed the young people of today in creating a fair workplace. Instead, we are progressively turning our backs on our responsibilities to the next generation and exploiting young people by denying them the right to work and the dignity of labour that comes from being rewarded for their endeavours. Workplaces today, be they private or public, are typically characterised by churn at the top and in its wake ongoing restructures and organisational change programs that most employees agree to change very little.

Raised in a wired world where the typical business heroes are the geeks of Silicon Valley operating from carefully designed fun and inclusive work campuses, young people’s dream of working in similar contexts are quickly dashed when they enter most workplaces. Far from being recognised as potentially contributing value from day one, they’re typically squashed with daily reminders to park their own ideas and simply do as they are told and be content that they have a job at all.

However, stifling those jobs are however they are still better off than many of their peers who find themselves on casual or contract status for years on end or juggling a portfolio of poorly paid part-time work to cobble together a living wage. And then there’s the very unethical but popular practice of interns or “volunteers” – or maybe we should go back to calling it what it used to be called which was exploitation – where young people basically don’t get paid at all for their labour and might even find themselves being asked to pay for the privilege of being an intern and gaining access to that vital first rung on the marketplace ladder.

Despite the lack of care afforded young people today in the workplace, our experience has been that many young people in both the public and private sectors have today a greater sense of ethical ambition than previous generations. Maybe it’s because they can no longer take for granted that public or private institutions will do the right thing – balancing what is good for themselves (or their leaders) with what is good for the common good – that they want to talk about ethics and how it can fit in with their professional roles. As time goes on we have also seen much of this ambition get stymied by workplace contexts where expediency is the order of the day and time-poor managers direct their staff to ‘just do it’. Poor ethical standards result in low employee morale as well as risk issues for the business. For some, it becomes a case of death by a thousand cuts as they stumble from one organisation and its empty promises to another who also fail to deliver.

Does it have to be this way? Can we turn the tide of apathy towards creating vital and sustainable workplace contexts where it’s a win/win for the business and for its employees? We know that it can be done. We know from the literature that there are some leaders in the field who are creating emancipated workplaces and reaping the rewards of doing so. However, for it to become mainstream needs critical mass and it’s the late majority that we need to step up to a higher accountability around growing their people. It’s a sustainable business proposition since field research shows that employers of choice are also the top performers in their industry. In chasing results, these leaders know that people do matter and if you care for them they will get you to the results you want quicker. Let’s start a conversation again about what really matters; it’s about people, especially young people who are dependent on older people to set an example that responds to the ethical ambition of the time. With business enjoying the infamy of being the biggest and least trusted institution, isn’t the notion of restoring a fair go for all the sort of ethical ambition for the modern workplace that everyone might be proud of?

Let’s not go quiet on the things that really matter….

In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to acknowledge that I have two sons who are currently experiencing the type of workplace cultures that stymie any sort of ambition never mind the ethical dimension.