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Ethics, Schmethics, U.S. Teens Say

By Kathy Gurchiek  12/21/2007
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Succeeding at all costs seems to be a belief of more than one-third of 726 U.S. teens surveyed, even as a majority of them say they’re prepared to make ethical decisions in the workforce, a Junior Achievement/Deloitte & Touche USA LLP survey found.

Lying, cheating, plagiarizing or behaving violently sometimes is necessary, 38 percent of teens age 13 to 18 said in a September 2007 online survey. The findings were released in December.

They also have different perceptions of online vs. “real world” behavioral standards, according to the fifth annual survey. Among the findings:

    • 71 percent feel fully prepared to make ethical decisions when they enter the workforce.

    • 38 percent think it sometimes is necessary to lie, cheat, plagiarize or behave violently in order to succeed.

    • 24 percent think cheating on a test is acceptable on some level; 54 percent of those teens say their personal desire to succeed is the rationale.

    • 23 percent think violence toward someone is acceptable on some level, including settling an argument (27 percent) and revenge (20 percent).

“The high percentages of teenagers who freely admit that unethical behavior can be justified is alarming,” said David Miller, Ph.D., executive director of the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and an assistant adjunct professor of business ethics.

Miller, who reviewed the findings, said those findings suggest “an attitude of ethical relativism and rationalization of whatever actions serve one’s immediate needs and purposes.

“This way of thinking will inevitably lead to unethical, if not illegal, actions that will damage individual lives and ruin corporate reputations,” he said in a press release.

Unethical behavior is seen by some teens as an acceptable means to an end, with 37 percent saying plagiarism is acceptable on some level. That jumps to 51 percent among students who said they feel an overwhelming pressure to succeed in school.

The teens surveyed also seem to have trouble understanding that ethical behavior transcends all aspects of life, including on and off the job, according to the findings.

Twenty-seven percent don’t think it’s fair for an employer to suspend or fire a worker for behaving unethically outside of work, and 57 percent don’t think it’s fair for employers to make hiring or firing decisions based on what employees or job candidates have posted on the Internet.

Also, illegally downloading music is acceptable on some level, 47 percent said, but only 5 percent thought it was OK to steal from a store.

It is important that members of the future workforce learn how to make ethical decisions, said Gerald M. Czarnecki, president and chief executive officer of JA (Junior Achievement) Worldwide. JA and Deloitte have partnered to launch a $2 million “JA Business Ethics” program aimed at fostering ethical decision-making among high school students.

“Our society relies on its members having a clear understanding that integrity and trust are the foundation of all human relationships,” he said in a press release.

“It’s sobering,” observed Ainar D. Aijala Jr. of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and chairman of JA Worldwide, “when teens who say they are fully prepared to make ethical decisions on the job also say they need to cheat to fulfill their personal ambition, to plagiarize because they don’t have enough time, or to physically harm another because they’ve had an argument.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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