JA Tackling Teens’ Growing Distrust of Corporate America

Group of teens looking serious

Just 17 percent of Americans believe business executives have a high level of honesty and ethical standards, according to a recent Gallup poll, a decline of three percentage points from one year ago. At the same time, young people’s overall opinion of capitalism has been declining for a decade, with just 51 percent of millennials and Gen Z having a positive view of capitalism.

“Companies are losing trust,” says Matt Most, vice president of government relations with Ovintiv and member of the Junior Achievement Rocky Mountain (JA) Board of Directors. “I tend to think that has to do with a lack of understanding how business works, not being a part of it, not feeling like an entrepreneur yourself, feeling like you have no control over what’s going on around you.”

Most has led several JA programs as a volunteer, including JA’s Capitalism with a Conscience (CWC) program, which teaches students about business ethics by analyzing real-world ethical dilemmas businesses can face, as well as ethical dilemmas teens currently face in their personal lives.

“It’s been meaningful talking about examples from my career where I’ve seen unethical things going on around me and I had to take some kind of action,” he says. “I find that those personal stories are revealing and they do tend to bring on good discussion.”

Volunteers sharing personal stories, adding context to the lessons they are delivering to students, is a trademark of all JA programs and is what helps make lessons stick with them long term.

“I like getting a chance to talk about what I do for a living because I work in oil and gas, and I strongly identify as an environmentalist, and I have an environmental science background. That leads to great conversations about fracking. They say, ‘I hear this stuff is bad,’ but then you ask them what it is and nobody knows. So it’s a great chance for me to talk about how your career can have ethical components to it. For example, is the oil and gas industry unethical just by its very existence? Hopefully, by the end of the conversation, they understand that it’s not the case and that all of our modern life comes from energy, so is modern life a problem given all of the life-extending technology energy provides? It just leads to such great discussions, and it’s exciting to see what kind of engagement you can get from students when you hit them with material that’s just so pertinent. They are very, very curious.”

Anna Ewing, chief operations officer of IMA Financial Group and JA Board member, has been volunteering with JA since 2018. In her CWC class, she shared with teens the professional advice given to her early on in her career: “There’s sometimes a difference in doing the thing right and doing the right thing.”

“I tell them sometimes in business, we want to do the thing right, we want to follow the contract, we want to follow the tails of a transaction, we want to get paid what we’re owed, but sometimes there are extenuating circumstances where there’s an opportunity to do the right thing that might not necessarily be as black and white,” she says. “Perhaps you have a customer that can’t pay for a certain set of reasons and you’re able to accommodate them, and that’s better for your shareholders because then you can retain that customer and work with them, and you come out ahead in the end, more so than if you would have simply written them off or terminated the relationship.”

Tackling Teens’ Skepticism

Lisa Hackard, audit partner at KPMG and JA Board member, has also been volunteering with JA since 2018 and notes that students in her CWC classes walk in with skepticism about the American economic system, but as they go through the lessons, they engage more and more.

“As I talk with them, it seems the skepticism is rooted in not having enough information about how the system works,” Hackard says. “I remember one student, in particular, came in with a demeanor of indifference. After reading the first scenario and talking through the various perspectives, his level of engagement continued to grow, along with his smile, and he started to eagerly explore the ‘what if’ questions as he put himself in the shoes of the various stakeholders. The fact he was able to expand his thinking and recognize that situations are not so simple is something I’ll always be honored to have been a part of.”

Many of the scenarios in CWC lessons are technology and social media-related, areas that students can relate to.

“It’s always fun to see how the ethical questions in the material baffle them,” Most says. “We ask them, ‘How many of you have a Spotify account’ and then, ‘How many of you actually pay for a Spotify account,’ which leads to this great conversation about whether ethics are different if they apply to a big corporation versus if they apply those same types of situations with an individual. That always gets a lot of lightbulbs going and it’s always fun to talk about.” 

“In another scenario, I ask them, ‘Would you steal money out of a guitar player’s guitar case on the 16th Street mall?’ They say no, so then I ask, “Would you rip off music from YouTube rather than paying artists for their music?’ When they say yes, I ask, ‘So what’s the difference?’ They really can’t articulate the difference, so it’s a chance to think about what they’re doing today, and then you get into the business world and add a few zeroes after that and it’s the same conversation,” Most adds.

“You can see them apply the lessons to their own observations and knowledge about what they see around them,” Ewing says. “I share with them that in all of my schooling, even in college, probably some of the most important learning I had was around business ethics and how that applies in so many situations, and that the world is sometimes not clear cut, particularly in the business environment. Oftentimes, it can be really gray and we must utilize judgment. And if that judgment is rooted in integrity, ethical decisions can be made.”

Building Trust for the Future

Hackard is seeing great potential for companies working to build trust with young people.

“Trust takes time to build and only moments to lose,” Hackard says. “I encourage company leaders to include young people as their mentors, to be sounding boards for ideas. And I encourage young people to reach out to companies and leaders and offer to be part of the dialogue. Listening is more important than ever; I see young people and leaders just wanting to be heard. I think young people can be leaders in this space by demonstrating how to listen and participating in a dialogue focused on learning.”

“Young people today are thoughtful and really engaged in what’s happening in the world around them and how to do the right thing” Ewing adds. “I think for this next generation, they will be expecting things out of the organizations that they are involved with; expectations that I didn’t have, for example. There’s a lot less compartmentalization and a lot more engagement around being socially conscious and corporate social responsibility. I think high school students today have just grown up in that. They’re breaking the barriers. If you’re in high school today, you’ve never known a world where things are compartmentalized, because you have so much access to technology. When they enter the workforce collectively, they’re going to reset a lot of benchmarks, expectations, and rules around what it means to be on a team, what it means to be responsible as a businessperson, and where that intersects with ethics.”