Ethics months are established and recognized by numerous professional organizations. While each chooses the month most appropriate to their field of interest, strategic communications and public relations professionals generally view September as Ethics Month.

Because ethics truly covers the time span of past, present and future, it’s particularly insightful to look into the future via perceptions held by the youngest of the adult generations – Millennials and Gen Zs – for a view of where ethical behaviors and communications may be headed.

Multinational consulting firm Deloitte recently released the firm’s 2019 Global Survey of Millennials and Gen Zs. Among the topics covered in data collected from more than 13,000 Millennials in 42 countries, as well as slightly more than 3,000 Gen Z participants, were the two groups’ views on ethics. Here are some key observations from the study:

  • 37% of Millennials believe business leaders make a positive impact on the world, down from 62% reported in 2017.

  • 26% claim to not trust business leaders as reliable and accurate sources of information.

  • 37% said they have stopped or lessened a business relationship because of perceptions of a company’s ethical behavior.

  • Conversely, 36% initiated or deepened a relationship because they believed a company was behaving ethically.

  • 42% of Millennials have initiated or deepened a business relationship because they perceive a company’s products or services to have a positive impact on society and/or the environment.

These numbers should be attention-grabbers for any individual or organization that depends on public acceptance to function. Historically, the notion of “doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking” could be stretched or overlooked because, frequently, nobody really was looking. However, today’s younger citizens and consumers have set the bar higher than ever for doing the right thing. They underpin their attitudes with technology, monitoring for credibility and actions. Accordingly, Millennials and Gen Zs are prepared to call out those not acting in what is seen being in the public interest, both in words and actions.

In American culture, companies and institutions ultimately operate under a de facto license from their stakeholders. The Deloitte study indicates need to focus on reputations. While the research is more a window on the future, a plaque on my office wall quoting Abraham Lincoln is a reminder that ethical behavior and the benefits therein are rooted in history.

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

September is Ethics Month for all PRSA members. Find other resources and follow the conversation at #EthicsMonth on Twitter.