Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

The Moral Dilemmas of Young Professionals

7/5/2004
What influences the moral compasses of young professionals? Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers discuss their new book on ethical conflicts faced by generations at the start of their career ladder.

Market pressures and the speed of modern-day business are placing severe ethical demands on young professionals. Are they selling out to further their careers, or doing the right thing by their moral compass?

The picture is complicated, and has been recently documented via the Harvard Graduate School of Education's GoodWork Project. A recent book on the research, Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work (Harvard University Press, 2004), was written by researchers Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan, and faculty member Howard Gardner (renowned for his theory of multiple intelligences). The study looked at on-the-job moral dilemmas faced by a hundred professionals between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five in three professions: journalism, science, and acting.

The results are unsettling. Often the young professionals know the right thing to do, but instead cross that line to further their careers by bending the rules or engaging in morally questionable behavior. They look for jobs with big money instead of big satisfaction.

Employers need to consider these findings as they think about their own corporate values and as they construct management development and mentoring programs.

Authors Fischman, Solomon, Greenspan, and Gardner collaborated on this e-mail interview.

Mallory Stark: Is this tension over the dual meaning of being a "good worker"—that is, being skilled at a job as well as doing the job in an ethical manner—inherent to the younger generation of workers?

A: The challenges to doing work that is at once excellent in quality and socially responsible—"good work"—are salient for professionals across stages and fields. Young people still developing the skills and integrating the values of their professions, however, may be particularly vulnerable to this tension.

Many of the young participants in our study, for example, easily identified what they felt was most responsible and "right," but felt that they were excused or even compelled to compromise these morals in order to advance in their careers at this early stage. Young journalists frequently cited interviewing bereaved families as something they believed to be intrusive and inappropriate. While some found ways to refuse, most complied with their editors' demands explaining that, as they advanced in their careers, they would have the luxury to avoid or reject such assignments without risking their jobs.

At the same time, there is immense pressure on professionals from novices to veterans in today's marketplace to meet bottom-line demands. Where scientists in the past focused on contributing to knowledge or curing disease, for example, today they may be searching for lucrative treatments to increase a biotech's market share value.

This is not to say that financial concerns have not always had some role in professions—scientists have always competed for grants, for example. But the market pressures of today combined with the lightning speed advances in technology are unprecedented. Young workers are developing in a different cultural climate than their predecessors, and have the complex task of learning to negotiate the often competing demands of excellence, ethics, and earnings.

Q: Were mentors and role models an important force in the experiences of the professionals in your study?

A: Interpersonal influences are undeniably crucial forces in any aspect of development, including development within a profession. Ideally, young people should choose their parents well, and it helps if they choose their mentors well. Of course, they have more options in the latter category.

Young professionals need to be reflective about the purposes of their work and proactive about the approaches they take.

As might be expected, parents were most likely to be described as role models of hard work and discipline among younger participants in our study, whether or not they worked in the same field that their children pursued. Many of the participants also described important teachers who guided them in learning at least the fundamentals of their craft. For the most part, however, young professionals did not speak of close meaningful mentor relationships in their professional training and workplace, especially as compared to more veteran workers' discussions of mentors and paragons in their own professional development.

As young people advanced in their professions, however, we found that the function and importance of mentors and role models differed across profession. Young professional journalists in particular lamented the lack of mentors on the job, though those who had attended journalism school often spoke admiringly of professors, and almost all the young journalists looked to exemplary institutions (e.g., the New York Times) as standards.

While young actors looked to distant luminaries as models in their work, they were more likely to depend upon themselves and to look to their immediate theater community than to cite individual mentors.

In contrast, in the regimented career trajectory of science, close formal mentorship was central throughout training. While this formal mentoring was described positively by some, others spoke about challenging and even competitive relationships with mentors.

Overall, we were concerned that very few participants in our study described mentors who exemplified "good work."

Q: How did professional norms affect the ethical behaviors of the professionals in your study?

A: Professional norms heavily influenced the ways in which our participants approached their work. In many cases, the norms surrounding a profession were shaped by financial considerations, such as increasing newspaper circulation and securing grant monies. Young professionals repeatedly expressed anxiety over demands to compromise their personal values in the pursuit of profit. They were asked, for example, to sensationalize news stories, to publish scientific results before all the data were collected, and to portray characters in stereotypical ways. The participants in our study often complied with such pressures, however, in order to secure or to advance their places within the profession.

There were cases in each profession, however, where participants defied such pressures and acted in accordance with their own belief systems. These individuals acknowledged the financially-driven demands of their superiors as well as the possible ramifications of noncompliance. Nonetheless, they relied on their own moral compass in guiding their behaviors or, in some cases, considered leaving the profession if the pressures against pursuing their work in an ethical way became too great.

Q: What recommendations can you offer to young professionals who would like to enhance their performance as "good workers"?

A: Generally speaking, young professionals need to be reflective about the purposes of their work and proactive about the approaches they take in their work in order to produce "good work" and become "good workers."

Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work
Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work

It is imperative to think about the consequences of work not only for yourself, but also for surrounding peers and colleagues, and for the wider society. Young people need to ask themselves, "What are the implications of my work and what are the ramifications of the work-related decisions I make?" Building in periodic reflection about the kind of work you set out to do, the ways in which you go about doing it, and on the final product, will increase the likelihood of "good work."

Specifically, we describe three "levers" to good work which can be used by young professionals as well as by the veteran professionals who guide the work of younger professionals:

Mission: Define and articulate the mission of your particular profession and whether the institution in which you work and the colleagues with whom you work carry out work that is in accordance with this mission.

Model: Identify models of admirable workers who exemplify the kind of worker you want to become. Ask yourself: What is this person's motives for doing work? What kind of decisions does this person make during difficult situations? How does this individual's work contribute to society? It might be useful to think about paragons as well—individuals whom you may not know personally (e.g., Edward R. Murrow, Albert Schweitzer, John Gardner).

Mirror: Reflect on the decisions you make and approaches you take by asking yourself two questions: Am I proud of the kind of worker I am? Would I want to live in a society in which every member of my profession carried out work in the ways it is currently executed? Responding to these questions regularly can keep professionals honest and may offer opportunities to correct a misguided action or decision.

It is also important for young people who have career interests, but not a particular job, to also consider the consequences their work has on others and the impact that "good work," as well as compromised or bad work, has on our society. Towards this end, we are currently in the process of developing a curriculum for high school students to bridge the gap between research and practice and to prepare young students for the kind of pressures and challenges they will undoubtedly face in the workplace. This curriculum, A Toolkit for Workers in Progress, aims to introduce the concept of "good work" so that they have a framework to use as they consider the kind of workers they are now and the kinds of professionals they want to become.

Q: What were the biggest surprises that you encountered in your research?

A: These were four areas:

Prevalence and impact of ethical dilemmas for young people. Almost all the young professionals we interviewed dealt with some kind of ethical dilemma in their work. These ethical dilemmas played out differently depending on age, profession, workplace settings, personality, and available support structures, but the tensions often caused individuals to act in ways that conflicted with the values and intentions they espoused for their work. Even though young professionals described values such as honesty, integrity, and professional relationships as important to them, they were willing to compromise these values in order to satisfy a professional demand, compete with their peers for recognition, or gain rewards for their long hours and low pay. Young professionals just starting out in their careers felt that there was no choice—if they were going to stay in their jobs, or even get a job, they may have to cheat just to "keep up" and "make it" in the field.

Justifications of unethical acts. Young professionals were upfront about the unethical tactics they used at work to negotiate difficult situations. When we talk about these unethical acts, people are always surprised that the participants actually admitted to these kinds of behaviors (e.g., lying about professional identity in order to get a story, fabricating data in a lab report). The important finding here is that most young professionals did not feel badly or ashamed about their unethical practices because in their minds, the ends justify the means. As long as the unethical approach was in the service of getting out an important story for society to read, publishing a vital finding in a journal, or sending an essential message to the audience, in their eyes, it was necessary and not "wrong."

Genetics has become a lucrative field, and they wanted their piece of it.

Lack of "deep" mentoring. Many young professionals identified a lack of support from—and even competition with—authority figures, including supervisors, teachers, academic advisors, and directors. Lab supervisors and editors pressure young professionals to publish their findings early and to get the story quickly, using any means possible. Interestingly, Jayson Blair, who was a subject in our study and did not show up twice for the interview, is an example of a young journalist at the New York Times whose "mentors" modeled superficial traits—glibness, speed, flash—rather than due diligence and integrity. As a result, young professionals, like Blair, compromise their own values and the kind of work they want to do in order to meet demands without confrontation. Certainly, young actors would rarely confront a director with a disagreement about a script's interpretation or with an interpersonal issue with a fellow cast member. Of those young professionals who described a close mentor relationship, some described ways in which their mentors advised them to take an unethical route for the reward and recognition they would receive. Some of these mentors admitted that in order to "make it," young professionals will have to learn how to navigate the "real world" of their profession.

Effect of market forces. It is especially hard to do "good work" during times when the market is the bottom line. We see the changes everywhere: commercialization on television, in newspapers, and on Broadway. What matters is what sells.

Particularly dangerous for young people, we've noticed, is that market forces not only influence the ways in which young people think about and carry out their work, but also in what career they choose to pursue. Actors were concerned about the decreasing theater venues (and the "Disneyfication" of live theater) and some of the journalists contemplated leaving the profession altogether.

Additionally, of the twelve promising high school scientists we interviewed, who won international science competitions and were working in university laboratories, none expressed interest in continuing in academic research. Instead, they all wanted to pursue the more profitable fields of biotechnology, medicine, or pharmaceuticals. These young students had seen the life of post-doctoral students—the incredible long hours and low pay—and they did not want it. Genetics has become a lucrative field, and they wanted their piece of it.

Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.

A Means to an End: Living with Others

by Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan, and Howard Gardner

Karen was a young reporter at a well-respected newspaper in the Northeast. As an entry-level journalist, her primary source of competition came from summer interns who were recruited from elite undergraduate journalism programs. Karen was frustrated with editors who offered the interns privileges and choice assignments, even though she had more seniority:

One of the things that I really learned from the interns that bothered me so much was that—it was my first company experience because [the newspaper], above everything else, is a big company—seeing how who you know is sometimes a lot more important than what you know…To see these people come in, have the editor of our paper be taking them out to lunch, who's never even said hello to me. And I hated it. But looking back on this summer, it really, for me, really taught me the lesson of bad leadership and bad management. Because that's completely what I fault [the newspaper] for in this situation….I really learned that you're going to be overlooked sometimes. That you're going to be—you're not always going to get the recognition that you deserve….At other places I've worked, I've always sort of been the little young superstar. And there was never anyone else like me there. And now, all of a sudden, to have these people come in and see them sometimes getting better stories and working better shifts was really sort of a slap in the face.

Karen believed that competition could be "good for the soul." Some of her best work was born from the competitive atmosphere and her reluctance to be outdone by the interns. She began to work longer hours ("Most of them work about twelve hours a day, and so I would stay fourteen"), in the hope that she would be the one present to cover breaking stories. But this competitiveness had a downside. Karen described herself as honest and believed that "the cardinal rule of journalism is truth-telling." Yet her strong desire to provide readers with important information and to compete with other staff members compelled her to use questionable tactics to obtain her stories. For example, she misrepresented herself to others in order to get interviews. She did not, however, perceive such behavior as contradicting her goals of being truthful and honest. She argued that it was OK to use dishonest methods to get an honest story. In other words, the ends justified the means.

When asked if her goals of honesty and accuracy were shared by her colleagues in journalism, Karen replied:

Yes, I do think so. Definitely accuracy, because I think that it would be tough for people to be drawn to journalism if they weren't drawn to some sort of sense of accuracy, because it's such a staple. Honesty is tough because journalism…is such a really—unfortunately—manipulative profession. So I think, in what they print, honesty is very important. But in tactics used to get what they print, I'm not sure that honesty is always so important.…There are a lot of times where journalists do dishonest things to get honest things.

As one example, Karen mentioned situations in which journalists used deceptive methods to reveal a county's "blatant racism." The journalists wanted to expose exactly how black people were treated differently from whites in certain communities, particularly when it came to buying cars and homes. And so they presented themselves to the car dealerships and real estate offices as potential buyers, rather than journalists, in order to get first-hand accounts of discriminatory behavior. Karen justified this deception:

So I think that honesty is definitely—it's definitely something that I think people are, at heart, honest. But I think that tactics sometimes used are dishonest. I don't always think that dishonest tactics are used; they are mostly used for good reasons. Those stories, the one on the racism, I mean that was—that served the public good. I applaud what they did in that case….So I definitely think there are times for dishonest tactics. And I can only speak on what I've seen, and what I've seen in this small amount of print journalism I've worked in, I would say that most people do have accuracy and honesty at heart.

Several of the other journalists we interviewed invoked similar means-ends justifications. Early in an interview, one participant stressed the importance of honest reporting. Accuracy, she said, "is inherent…the key to the profession." But when asked if there was anything she wouldn't do to get a story, the same journalist responded:

Absolutely wouldn't do? That leaves the door open for a whole bunch of things that I would do. Committing a crime, obviously, in the process of getting a story, you wouldn't. But even that, I guess. I mean, if the story is that good…if you hear somehow there's a secret governmental meeting going on about the future of some air station, air base, and they're not supposed to be holding this meeting because of open-meeting law or whatever, and you find your way in there, and you have to stick yourself into a closet—if you've got to get the story, you've got to get it.... If you're in the right, then it's OK to break laws.

Though the professional journalists with whom we spoke experienced little dissonance when they voluntarily engaged in questionable practices to uncover breaking stories, they expressed a great deal of distress when pressured by others to violate their integrity. Several of the journalists were quite troubled when their editors urged them to make the content of their stories less than truthful. As the proverbial low men on the totem pole, the reporters were expected to comply with their editors' demands even when this meant they had to compromise their personal goals and values. As a result, the professional journalists said they often had to choose between their career ambitions and their personal integrity. Reflecting a pattern that we observed across all three domains, they themselves wanted to be able to decide when to skirt important ethical principles. They had to negotiate ways to accommodate their editors' often improper demands without relinquishing their own standards and their own reasons for participating in the domain.

Excerpted with permission from Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work, by Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Debora Greenspan, and Howard Gardner. Harvard University Press, 2004.