Making the Most At-Risk Generation Less Risky

Jimmy Lin


April 1, 2014


An Ethics Resource Center report on generational differences in workplace ethics found that millennials—otherwise known as generation Y—are the most at-risk generation in today’s workplace. They are most likely to observe misconduct, feel pressure to compromise their standards and engage in risky or questionable behavior. Traditionally, an employee’s risk level has been determined by their department, function and position within a company, but the study suggests that employee age should be another criterion when evaluating risk and selecting preventative compliance measures.

According to the survey findings, there are specific personal characteristics that make younger workers unique. These create special considerations for selecting and deploying online training and technology to properly acclimate this generation to the workplace.

Millennials See Misconduct
Almost half of all millennials responded that they have observed misconduct in the workplace. This portion is likely so large because millennials have a high need for social interaction and a high level of engagement in company culture. This makes them more aware of and sensitive to their working environment, and thus more likely to notice potential violations by other employees.

Many of these young workers, however, are also more likely to turn a blind eye to the questionable actions of others. While some of this may be due to their lack of experience within the organizational hierarchy, it is a behavior worth noting when developing training plans.

How to Adjust Your Training: The format of the training courseware should incorporate these workers’ high need for social interaction and engagement. This means text-based PowerPoint slides are out and scenario-based training and interactive games are in. Millennials learn through the combination of relatable scenes and characters with voices, not by reading lengthy manuals. Further, the gamification of training establishes a two-way street during the learning process, since this generation thrives as active participants in learning, not just as passive listeners.

These methods are meant to optimize retention of policies, so employees are able to identify violations, understand the impact of threats posed to the company, and take action by reporting through the company’s hotline. Employees—millennials in particular—are a company’s first line of defense. Capturing their attention early can set the tone for how they will handle situations for the rest of their careers.

Millennials Are Not Innocent
Because they are most likely to feel pressure to compromise standards, millennials can also be bad actors themselves. Due to the inexperience of these younger workers, they may not yet have learned how to cope with stressful situations in their working environment. Further, the lack of job security in a weak economy may lead to a mentality of “the ends justify the means.” In fact, the survey indicates that one out of three millennials are willing to break rules if they think it will save their jobs.

How to Adjust Your Training: The remedy here is for companies to show a commitment to compliance over short-term results. The key word is “show.” Millennials not only need to be assured of this commitment by their immediate supervisors and leaders, but also need to see this message reinforced through other media, such as online training. Training materials can convey this message in a more practical manner by providing relatable scenarios tailored to a company’s particular working environment.

Employees don’t just need to memorize the rules; they need to understand the rules and expected behavior in the context of common situations within the company. This “show, don’t tell” approach to compliance training hits closer to home.

Millennials Are the Riskiest of All
Millennials are the most likely to engage in questionable or risky behavior, and not just in terms of compromising standards. This generation is also particularly open and transparent on social media tools, making them more likely to share information about work experiences, both positive and negative, with others in their social networks. This behavior could create significant reputational risk, and today’s directors don’t want their dirty laundry aired worldwide. Millennials are also the most likely to keep copies of confidential company documents, which, if shared outside the company, could get into the hands of competitors.

How to Adjust Your Training: For today’s young workers, sharing information on Facebook and Twitter is second nature, and it is hard to imagine this cultural shift toward mass communication reversing for future generations. Going forward, social media risk and related company policies will be especially relevant to address through training.

Millennials are high-risk employees, meaning they need to certify and attest to policies and receive annual training, as well as frequent refreshers. As many in compliance know, incident reporting skyrockets immediately following annual training and then falls back to “normal” levels as employee awareness erodes. Since maintaining awareness of social media risks is crucial, the “YouTube generation” needs refresher training that matches the methods by which they are already accustomed to consuming information—in short, memorable bursts. Again, this reinforces the commitment to compliance and keeps expected behaviors and red flags top of mind.

The risks associated with millennials necessitate a proactive approach. While “tone at the top” and “message from the middle” have always been fundamental concepts when marketing a corporate compliance program, online training can play a key role in making policies more relevant for younger generations. Engaging content helps promote awareness throughout the program’s existence, ensuring issues can be discovered and resolved quickly.

Taking a long-term view of compliance training strategy is important because future generations will only get more technologically savvy, and it will take at least this much to keep their attention.
Jimmy Lin is vice president of product management and corporate development for The Network, an Atlanta-based provider of governance, risk and compliance products.