Newswise — Millennials pursuing careers in public relations don’t feel ready to give advice on moral dilemmas to their companies. In fact, they don’t expect to face ethical dilemmas at work, according to a Baylor University study.
Millennials or Generation Y — generally identified as those born between 1981 or 1982 through 2000 — are projected to make up one third to one half of the country’s workforce by 2025. They’ll shift from being “doers” to being “deciders” in businesses, and their ethical compass will set the course for subsequent generations of PR professionals, said study author Marlene Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.“The study findings are a cause for concern,” Neill said. “If Millennials don’t feel equipped, they may be misled by their superiors or used as instruments of unethical behavior.” And without mentoring or training, they must learn by trial and error. The national study — “Silent & Unprepared: Most Millennial Practitioners Have Not Embraced Role as Ethical Conscience” — is published in the journal Public Relations Review.
Neill and co-researcher Nancy Weaver, a colleague from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Ethics & Professional Standards, surveyed 217 Millennial members of PRSA, a professional association. Respondents’ average age was 25, with an average of fewer than three years’ experience in PR.
Researchers found that factors for preparing Millennials include ethics training in college, workplace training, training through professional associations and mentoring by someone inside or outside their organizations.
But while the majority (74 percent) had received ethics training in college, most had not received training through the workplace or through a professional organization.Besides lacking confidence, most appear to be overly optimistic that they won’t have to confront such common dilemmas as truthfulness in communication, altering researching results, working with questionable clients or blurring of personal and professional speech online, Neill said.
When study respondents were asked what ethical issues they had faced or were most likely to face in their jobs, they ranked only one issue — messaging, such as how much information to disclose and when — above being a “neutral” challenge, Neill said. But two thirds indicated they actually had faced ethical issues regarding messaging, while one third had experienced issues regarding blurring of online and professional speech, lack of access to leadership or information and transparency in sponsored content.
“It’s difficult to determine why Millennials don’t expect to face ethical issues in the workplace,” Neill said. “Perhaps they perceive their employers as ethical or have yet to face these issues early in their careers.”
Previous research by other scholars found that when Millennials were presented with ethical dilemmas at businesses, they preferred to avoid them — generally by ignoring a request, referring the issue to a boss or simply following orders.
Other findings: -- Millennials are more likely to offer ethics counsel if they feel confident and comfortable in discussing concerns with mentors, clients and immediate supervisors.-- Most indicated they had a mentor and would be comfortable discussing ethical concerns with an immediate supervisor.-- More than half said they are not typically in the board room when ethical issues are discussed, and one third said they lack access to leadership and information.The findings in the study of Millennials were in marked contrast to Neill’s 2015 research with a random sample of 305 PR practitioners who are PRSA members. In that study, 90 percent had faced issues related to messaging; 66 percent to lack of access to leadership and information; 59 percent to blurring of personal and professional speech online; and nearly 50 percent to personal ethics.
For decades, public relations scholars and industry leaders have called for practitioners to serve in the role of ethical or organizational conscience, Neill said. But in previous research, she found mixed reactions from practitioners themselves. Some embrace the role, even putting the public interest above their duty to their employers. But others suggest that ethics are better left to the legal department or that the role is beyond their responsibilities, abilities or trainings.
*Funding for the study was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from The Arthur W. Page Center at the Pennsylvania State University College of Communications. Co-researcher is Nancy Weaver, internal communications manager of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.