Imagine for a moment that you've been asked to collect money from your co-workers to buy decorations for your office holiday party. The boss gave you an envelope and sent you on your way with clear instructions: Ask every one of your 50 co-workers if they want to pitch in some money for the party. By the end of the day you have $150 in cash. No one knows how much you collected except for you. Would you: a) total up all the money and give it to your boss, or b) take a little of it for your collection efforts? I mean no one would know but you…

I'm hoping the thought of taking any of the $150 never crossed your mind and that you're appalled I would even suggest it. However, several managers have recently told me that they are concerned about Gen Y's ethics and have doubts about their integrity. Some have even told me that they simply don't trust their young employees.

As a member of Gen Y, I find this concern offensive, but I can also understand where the managers are coming from. For example, I know many young adults who buy or are given a video game and immediately go online to get the cheat codes to easily beat the game. Is that ethical? I've met other young adults who buy fancy clothes to wear to a party and then return them the day after the celebration. Is that ethical? And I recently spoke with the dean of a prominent business school who told me that plagiarism seems to have increased dramatically in recent years (at least in terms of those who get caught). Is Gen Y really lacking in ethics? Do we simply prefer shortcuts? Or is a small group of young adults making the rest of us look bad?

The answer is up for debate — and so is the idea that Gen Y is any more or less ethical than previous generations. What I do know is that ethics have never been more important to the career of a young professional. The headlines of companies that have imploded based on fraud and deceit speak for themselves. At the same time, getting a reputation for being unethical can leave a lasting scar on an otherwise impressive young professional's résumé. Doing the right thing may not always be the easiest path, but it is the path that keeps you looking forward instead of over your shoulder.

Here are three areas that managers have told me Gen Y needs to pay particular attention to when it comes to professional ethics:

  1. Résumé — Lying on or embellishing résumés has reached epidemic proportions

    Ironically, the Internet and numerous résumé-checking services make it easier than ever to find out if you really did graduate from Harvard, a “diploma mill,” or Imaginary U.

  2. Confidentiality — Keeping your work confidential is part of being a professional

    Business competition is fierce and proprietary information can find its way into the wrong hands at the speed of broadband. Know what you can and can't talk about outside of the office — including on your blog. If you're not sure, ask.

  3. Theft — You don't have to pocket cash from your employer for it to be considered stealing

    Surfing the Web at work when you should be working is a type of theft. So is “borrowing” office supplies for personal use. At one company, a surveillance camera was set up to see who was stealing the toilet paper. When the person was caught, not only was he fired, but imagine the embarrassment! He went straight from aspiring VP to embezzler of TP.

There are several ways to go about making an ethical decision. You can consider how the general public would react to your decision if they heard about it on the evening news. You can consider whether your mom, dad, or someone you deeply respect would consider your decision ethical or not. And if you're still not sure, ask one of them. They — and you — will be glad you did.

Jason Ryan Dorsey is The Gen Y Guy™. His keynotes and seminars teach business leaders how to build Gen Y employee loyalty and performance while bridging all four generations in the workplace. Jason has appeared on “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “The Today Show,” and “The View.” His new book is entitled My Reality Check Bounced!

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