How Millennials Deal with Ethical Dilemmas(1)

As the oldest members of the Millennial generation are now beginning to take on management and other key decision-making responsibilities, we need to expand our understanding of this generation’s attitudes toward ethical decision-making in the workplace. Many identify Millennials, also known as Generation Y, as those born between 1981 or 1982 through 2000, and they are expected to comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025 (Deloitte, 2014).

As part of Ethics Month in September, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, together with the Arthur W. Page Center, is sponsoring survey research with Millennials who are members of PRSA to better understand their readiness to respond to ethical issues presented in the workplace. Through the survey results, we hope to reveal Millennial members’

  • Awareness of PRSA’s ethics resources
  • Sources of ethics education, training, and information
  • Perceptions of their preparedness and ability to provide ethics counsel to clients or employers
  • Perceptions of the most pressing ethical issues

In preparation for this new study, we reviewed several recent studies regarding Millennials and ethics. Much of the current literature focuses on this generation’s actions and ethical perceptions related to academic environments (Auger, 2013; VanMeter et al., 2013), and their views on questionable decisions made by others (Culiberg & Mihelič, 2016; Gallicano et al., 2012).

One of these studies found that while students at one university were aware of the PRSA code of ethics, it did not influence their behavior when it came to academic integrity as almost 80% admitted to cheating (Auger, 2013). In another study, Millennials expressed concern about unethical business practices in public relations agencies related to client billing, media relations and client presentations; however, the authors pointed out that the Millennials did not provide any suggestions on how to address these issues, which may mean “they felt they lack a lack of power to change them” (Gallicano et al., 2012, p. 239).

In a third study, scholars found when Millennials were presented with ethical dilemmas, they preferred “to avoid an issue rather than taking a stand” by simply referring the issue to a superior (53.5%) or ignoring a request (69.5%), or choosing to follow the boss’ orders with the responses ranging from 22.1% to 52% based on three scenarios (Curtin, Gallicano & Matthews, 2011, p. 13). Despite these insights, scholars have decried the lack of empirical search regarding “Millennials’ perspectives on work and ethics, particularly in public relations” (Curtin et al. 2011, p. 1).

Last year, PRSA and the Arthur W. Page Center funded a national survey of PRSA members and educators to understand their acceptance of the ethical conscience role in public relations. The study provided evidence that the majority of practitioners and educators believe this is public relations’ responsibility. Some of the findings from the study will be presented at the PRSA International Conference in Indianapolis Oct. 22-25.

However, the demographics of the sample in the first study were skewed with an average age of 47 and the average years of experience in public relations was 21, giving us little data to gauge the views and experiences of Millennial PR professionals, who are beginning to emerge as leaders and managers. This new study also will examine the role of mentors, who previously were identified as influential for junior practitioners as they advance into management positions (Pompper & Adams, 2006; Tam, Dozier, Lauzen & Real, 1995).

We appreciate the support of PRSA and the Arthur W. Page Center in sponsoring both studies and look forward to sharing the results from both studies in hope that it continues to inform and shape the industry’s approach to public relations ethics education in both collegiate and professional environments.

Note: Marlene S. Neill and Nancy C. Weaver are members of the PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards.


Auger, G.A. (2013). Missing citations, bulking biographies, and unethical collaboration: Types

of cheating among public relations majors. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 68 (2), 150-165.

Culiberg, B., & Mihelič, K.K. (2015). Three ethical frames of reference: Insights into

Millennials’ ethical judgements and intentions in the workplace. Business Ethics: A European Review, 25 (1), 94-111.

Curtin, P.A., Gallicano, T., & Matthews, K. (2011). Millennials’ approaches to ethical decision

making: A survey of young public relations agency employees. Public Relations Journal, 5 (2) 1-21.

Deloitte. (2014) Big demands and high expectations: The Deloitte Millennial survey. Retrieved

Gallicano, T.D. (2013). Relationship management with the Millennial generation of public

relations agency employees. Public Relations Review, 39, 222-225.

Gallicano, T.D., Curtin, P., & Matthews, K. (2012). I love what I do, but…A relationship

management survey of millennial generation public relations agency employees. Journal of Public Relations Research, 24, 222-242.

Pompper, D., & Adams, J. (2006). Under the microscope: Gender and mentor-protégé

relationships. Public Relations Review, 32, 309-315.

Tam, S.Y., Dozier, D.M., Lauzen M.M., & Real, M.R. (1995). The impact of superior

subordinate gender on the career advancement of public relations practitioners. Journal of Public Relations Research, 7, 259-272.

VanMeter, R.A., Grisaffe, D. B., Chonko, L.B., & Roberts, J.A. (2013). Generation Y’s ethical

ideology and its potential workplace implications. Journal of Business Ethics, 117, 93-109.

F9atC4CS_400x400Dr. Marlene S. Neill is an assistant professor at Baylor University. She received her PhD in advertising from the University of Texas at Austin. She previously worked for almost 12 years in government and nonprofit public relations. Her research focuses on public relations management, integrated communication, and ethics. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.

Nancy WeaverNancy Weaver, M.A., APR is the internal communications manager at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and internal communications consultant. In addition to more than 20 years of professional experience and five as an educator, she has been an industry leader as the PRSA’s Las Vegas Valley Chapter President, Western District Chair, and Employee Communications Section Chair. Follow her on Twitter @NWeaverAPR.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply