Teens Face Ethical Dilemma – Can We Help?

by Chuck Gallagher

In a recent survey, teens reported, by a stunning margin (81%) that they felt “significant pressure” to succeed or achieve – no matter the cost. What’s more – those same teens expect the pressure to get worse as they enter the workforce. How can we expect ethical behavior by adults in our business environment if our young people lack a solid ethical foundation. This article explores some solutions to the teen ethics problem.

In a recent survey, teens reported, by a stunning margin (81%) that they felt “significant pressure” to succeed or achieve – no matter the cost. What’s more – those same teens expect the pressure to get worse as they enter the workforce. This is evidenced by the competitive nature of schools even in the elementary age. Colleges are tapping into the gifted and talented students beginning their recruitment strategy as early as nine years old. What happened to child’s play?“The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program” is an internationally recognized rigorous, two-year pre-university program. In addition to being required to complete college-level courses and exams, IB students are also required to engage in community service, individual research, and inquiry into the nature of knowledge. Students who successfully complete the requirements are awarded an IB Diploma. It is highly competitive and highly valued among many students. Not that highly competitive programs are bad – they’re not. But, where do young people get taught proper ethical values? Here they are striving to get ahead preparing them for their future. It is highly pressurized and it starts early. Perhaps they are learning, without the wisdom of age, the illusion of success without a sound ethical foundation.

No wonder the media appears slammed with stories about the consequences of ethics and ethical lapses. The media captures attention in almost every venue – from broadcast to internet to print. Once the illusion of success is accepted as reality, then making ethical choices becomes difficult for some. Whether we hear about Enron, HP, or Martha Stewart – one thing we know is that the choices we make can have a profound impact on the consequences we live.

These issues not only affect adults, but also teens. Recently a “Teen Ethics Poll” was released by JA Worldwide™ (Junior Achievement) and Deloitte & Touche USA LLP (Deloitte). The results were featured on the Junior Achievement web site (http://www.ja.org/about/about_newsitem.asp?StoryID=376) dated December 6, 2006 and support the concept that unethical decisions start at an early age. “The notion that large numbers of students feel somewhat unprepared to make ethical decisions, coupled with the fact that they feel pressure to succeed at all costs, is a troubling combination,” said David Miller Ph.D., Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Business Ethics.

Published survey results showed that 69% of teens admitted to lying, 34% to illegally downloading music, and 22% to cheating on tests. One of the most interesting statistics in the survey and perhaps one of the most telling is that more than a quarter (29 percent) of all teens surveyed stated that they are currently only “somewhat” or “not at all” prepared to make ethical decisions.

Quoting from the news release, “We have to take it seriously when students who are under so much stress tell us they think it’s not going to get any better, especially if they don’t feel prepared to make the right calls,” said Ainar D. Aijala, Jr., vice chairman and deputy chief executive officer of Deloitte Consulting LLP and chairman of the board of JA Worldwide.

In presentations I made over ten years ago to students in the same age group as the Junior Achievement study, the students reported extreme pressure to achieve and a willingness to compromise their integrity and ethical choices. Many said, in their own unique way, that they would take their chances on negative consequences from unethical choices. Their reality was – immediate gratification – outweighed the potential consequences of their choices. Immediate gratification is common with infants and young children. As they grow it is expected that they learn the value of delayed gratification. What has happened that they are not growing out of the immediate gratification stage? Where are they learning this behavior?Two of the students reported to me in the 1996 presentation series that look, stature, and the illusion of success was critical in the eyes of their peers. In fact, one stated that, “You do what ever it takes to get ahead. If I can get ahead now, then I’ll have a greater chance in the business world later.” When asked if that meant compromising his integrity – his response was “Success trumps all – What ever it takes.”

The challenge for our young people today is once you take that first bite, once you engage in unethical behavior, it’s hard to undo the consequences. If we expect our future leaders of tomorrow to function in a more ethical manner than the current business leaders of today, then we must take the initiative to train decision making in an environment of integrity and ethics. We must demonstrate and teach that success typically does not arise out of immediate gratification. How do we stem the tide of pressure beyond ethics? Ethical behavior, like most behavior, is learned. If we can teach success beyond ethics (what apparently we are doing now per our young people) – then we can, likewise, teach “Ethical Success.” While there is no single solution to the problem, we can take some simple steps to effect positive change. One thing is certain, there is a need for focused ethical training and awareness.

How we can help!Ø JA Worldwide and Deloitte are collaborating on a multi-faceted educational program, which can be delivered as early as the fourth grade, to help students learn to make ethical decisions and alleviate the pressure to behave unethically. The “Excellence through Ethics” program includes classroom lessons that teach the value of ethical behavior, a $5,000 college scholarship essay contest which requires high school seniors to demonstrate their ability to apply ethical decision-making to real-life situations, expansion to the U.S. of an existing Global Ethics Challenge, and implementation grants for U.S. Junior Achievement offices which use the program.

The Choices Foundation (a non-profit organization) provides a forum through which ethical behavior is taught to high school and college students during their formative years. Perhaps, if a young person is exposed to real life effects of ethics choices, he or she will have a frame of reference as to the real consequences that can follow. To sponsor a presentation to a College or University, contact Chuck Gallagher at www.chuckgallagher.com.

Over the years, through many speaking engagements with young people, I have found that young people thirst for reasons to do the right thing. Yet, society places a premium on success at all costs, which fosters an environment for inevitable ethical dilemmas. It’s time we take responsibility as adults to reverse the trends supported by this current study. We can take action today. For information on the Choices Foundation (a non-profit organization) and the presentations on ethics given by Chuck Gallagher, contact Chuck at chuck@chuckgallagher.com or visit www.chuckgallagher.com.

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On a crisp October day in 1995, Chuck Gallagher took 23 physical steps… opened a door… and began a new experience that was life-changing. This series of articles explores that experience and the success that followed… while involving the reader in ways that could be life-altering for them. Gallagher captures the heart of the audience in an honest way that deals with human emotion. For information on Chuck’s keynotes and workshops go to www.chuckgallagher.com or for a free ezine on Ethical Choices contact Chuck at chuck@chuckgallagher.com.

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