VIEWPOINT: ‘Eating our young’ as a way of mentoring?

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I recently came across an insightful publication by the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being at the University of California, Berkley, called Greater Good. One article especially caught my attention: “Inspiring Good Work” (spring-summer 2005 issue) by researchers Wendy Fischman and Howard Garner, of Harvard University’s GoodWork Project.

As highlighted in the article, the GoodWork Project’s research, under way for the past decade, has revealed that young people leaving college and embarking on their professional careers are finding it difficult to get connected with a principled mentor in the workplace. Fischman and Garner concluded: “As a result, our research suggests, society’s next generation of leaders is learning firsthand to place monetary gain or power above a sense of responsibility to others or a commitment to professional ethics.”

While traveling recently with several young professionals in their mid-20s, I shared the gist of the Greater Good piece. They chimed in, relating some of their own “formative” workplace experiences, confirming the accuracy of the researchers’ claims. One made special note of “bending” ethics-in this case, being guided to brush off poor-quality work he discovered that is or could be costly to a client. It’s a technique from the “What Clients Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Them” school of business.

Welcome to the American workplace 2006?

Certainly, there is enormous pressure in today’s organizations to meet or exceed performance goals each quarter. When people are under such intense pressure to “make the numbers,” ethical behavior can conveniently fall by the wayside. Recent college grads, eager to impress, are particularly gullible when encouraged to assimilate to a less-principled sense of propriety. And so they can begin to bend themselves out of ethical shape, sometimes permanently.

The pursuit of success plays host to many strong influences. Unfortunately, some invite bending the rules as part of the program. They include rationalization, group-think and peer pressure, and a “Sherman’s March” approach to winning.

Based on the GoodWork Project’s research, it would appear our society is generally preparing its young adults to be consumed by the “norm” of unethical behavior in our places of work. Beyond academic research indications, it makes one wonder if we really love our children. And, correspondingly, what we really think of ourselves.

Fischman and Gardner didn’t just accentuate the negative. They also provided practical suggestions as to how young professionals can find a good mentor in these less-than-ethically-ideal times:

Recognize mutual interests, as the mentor-pupil relationship is a two-way street;

Broaden the search if necessary to include mentors outside the workplace, such as former teachers;

Stitch together a persona from the strengths of several mentor figures; and

Reflect on paragons-influential role models from history-should there be a shortage of qualified mentor candidates in the vicinity.

However, the Harvard researchers didn’t provide any advice on how to change the ethical environment in today’s workplace, which makes sense. Why?

Because that part is up to you and me.

Mulherin is an organizational development consultant specializing in management experience in health care, insurance, education, state government and the hospitality industry. He can be reached at 257-6128 or

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