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Todd and Jeanne worked in the same department at Jones & Samuels, a busy law firm. Both were young attorneys who did a lot of the "grunt work" for the senior attorneys and partners—double-checking contract language, doing research on cases, and filing necessary paperwork.

Filled with ambition, both aimed to become partners in the firm someday. They had time to observe the behavior of the partners to understand what it might take to achieve their goals. They noticed partners worked hard, and put in long hours. Sometimes the work was grueling and monotonous, and the partners always seemed to have meetings and appointments.

There was little down time to reflect upon the finer points of the law. After all, the partners wanted to maximize billable hours.

Jeanne and Todd also noticed one other factor: how the partners treated people. Some were condescending and dismissive of the newer hires.

Others were warmer and more open, willing to take a young attorney under their wings to mentor and train her or him. Some seemed to lack respect for clients, poking fun at the decisions the clients made that got them into the kind of trouble requiring an attorney’s intervention. Still others seemed to undercut other attorneys and jockey for position and recognition.

"What kind of partner do you want to be?" Todd asked Jeanne over lunch one day. "I wonder sometimes about what really drives people to say what they say and do what they do?"

"I sure don’t like this idea that law is some big chess game," Jeanne replied. "In fact, sometimes it seems like I’m watching Gladiator all over again. It’s so political—who’s supporting whom, how they can change allegiances and undercut each other."

"Yeah," Todd replied, "and sometimes the way they treat clients bothers me. It’s like they see their clients as idiots and try to bill them for anything and everything."

"Some are pretty good, though," Jeanne said. "They really seem to care. In fact, one of them takes her time to go over the ways she develops cases with me. I really like that."

Todd thought for a moment and said, "So often it seems to me that the motto is, ‘Do to others before they can do to you.’ Is this what the real world is like? I wonder if it’s like this in other offices and businesses, too?"

Todd and Jeanne exist in many workplaces—newly minted graduates with a lot of "book smarts."

But they are just finding out how individual ethical commitments influence work habits and business relationships—and how a corporate culture also attracts certain kinds of people and shapes them in the "way we do things around here," whether spoken or unspoken.

Some experts say our values and ethical commitments are developed early in life, and refined and sometimes reinforced during high school and college. For example, a child may learn he or she can copy off of another student’s paper and not be caught—or if caught, have parents more focused on academic achievement than on achieving fairly.

So it’s possible to take shortcuts at work, steal other people’s ideas, take money that doesn’t belong to them, or engage in extramarital affairs. This is the real world to them, where everybody does it now and then.

Or a child can learn failure can be a good teacher. They can make mistakes, face the consequences, find love and emotional support, develop a strong sense of integrity, and work hard. Their parents stress that the world does not owe them a living, and part of the child’s task is to leave the world a better place than when he or she entered it. This is the real world to them, and they are surprised as young adults when others live by a very different code.

For those of us who have accumulated years of experience, younger workers can be immensely helpful to us because they bring a new and fresh perspective. They haven’t become jaded and cynical or apathetic.

They ask "why" and press us to talk about what’s really important to us in our work and in our commitments. They press us to examine our assumptions about the way the world really is, and the value of our ethical commitments. Are we up to the challenge?

After all, these young graduates and new workers have a lot to teach us. merce: The Year in Review. IBI

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