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For Millennials, Does a Big Paycheck Trump Ethical Responsibility?

Millennials report that they want fulfilling work at companies that allow them to make a positive impact on society. 

But when it comes time to look at a very generous job offer from that big financial institution that just paid a huge fine for tax evasion, do millennials let money and career trump ethical irresponsibility? When a company like CVS decides to stop selling tobacco, do millennials applaud its virtue or question its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders?

Bentley’s PreparedU study found that there is near universal agreement that, more than ever, businesses today have the opportunity to improve society and need millennials to help. Moreover, 86 percent of millennials agree that it is a “priority for me to work for companies that are socially responsible and ethical.”

But where to find such companies, and how to really separate saint from sinner? Perhaps in response to such concerns, one admittedly narrow measure that has evolved recently is ESG, or Environmental, Social and Governance, three areas that are involved in what has become known as socially responsible investing. While ESG activities are used as one barometer for evaluating and possible influencing a company’s financial performance over time, they also conceivably have the potential to serve as a scorecard for evaluating whether the company actually has created a socially impactful ethos. And, indeed, many of the KPIs used by socially responsible investment firms are mirrored in the ESG activities of American corporations.

Progressive companies like Bloomberg are jumping in with both feet. Its “BCause Impact Report” begins with this statement: “Sustainability leverages our core competencies to make a positive impact on society and our business.” Goldman Sachs states simply that, “Our Impact Drives Global Progress” and then provides support for the claim in areas such as environment, communities, government and business standards. Admittedly, some of the content is really more a tribute to capitalism than a portrait of corporate social responsibility, but the details surrounding, for example, the environment activities cannot help but impress.

Anecdotally, some observers here at Bentley University suggest that there has been an undeniable shift in the attitudes of students about issues such as sustainability. Whereas not that long ago, students might have felt that pursuing “green” practices was a “nice to have,” now it is mandatory, with a social vibe that is highly critical of those who display a wanton disregard for recycling, energy conservation, and other “best practices.”

The impact of the growing demand by both companies and millennial students for expertise that creates a socially beneficial (and often profitable) impact on society can be measured as well in the development of new academic programs. Bentley’s recently established major in Sustainability Science is a good example of such a program, which combines in-depth study of the sciences with a thorough grounding in business practices that are used in the industry.

The timing is right because millennial idealism most certainly translates into interest in and involvement with public service. Here again, Bentley has responded with a new Public Policy major. And no wonder. A 2014 millennial survey by Deloitte found that millennials believe that government is not doing enough. Almost half feel that government has had a negative impact on top challenges such as unemployment, resource scarcity, and income inequality. Moreover, 63 percent of millennials donate to charity, 43 percent volunteer, and 52 percent have signed petitions. Compare those numbers to any other generation!

Education rooted in values and service to others often is ascribed primarily to religious based organizations and most especially colleges and universities. Today, while the direct linkage to faith may be absent, a canon of ethical principles is being constituted, both formally and informally, at both religious and non-sectarian institutions of higher learning and businesses alike, fueled at least in part by the demands of a generation that has for too long seen concerns for such issues valued more in word than in deed, if at all.

This is not to deny that there remains a healthy cohort of job-seeking millennials whose career interests focus on traditional concerns such as salary and benefits. Nor that some surveys of prospective undergraduate students and their parents in the past have tended to rank a concern for ethical values and behavior as less important than other factors in selecting a college or university. But in that sometimes loose confederation of ethical behavior, sustainability practice, and meaningful work —  the “People, Planet, Profits” proposition, as Bentley President Gloria Larson likes to put it — there would appear to be an undeniable belief that the mission of America’s higher education and corporate communities is being redefined, and will continue to be, thanks to millennial values and idealism.

Vic Schlitzer is Director of Brand and Content Marketing at Bentley University