Business Ethics Alliance Executive Director and CEO Michael Robinson offers a succinct and memorable summary of why ethics in business are important: “Behaving ethically doesn’t cost a thing, but your decisions and actions can cost you everything.” Questionable accounting cost energy giant Enron everything — and took down accounting firm Arthur Andersen with it — […]
Business Ethics Alliance Executive Director and CEO Michael Robinson offers a succinct and memorable summary of why ethics in business are important:
“Behaving ethically doesn’t cost a thing, but your decisions and actions can cost you everything.”
Questionable accounting cost energy giant Enron everything — and took down accounting firm Arthur Andersen with it — in the early 2000s. Following that notorious downfall, the Heider College of Business, Greater Omaha Chamber and the local Better Business Bureau partnered to create the business ethics group now called Business Ethics Alliance (BEA), with a mission to build leadership, strengthen organizations, and elevate greater Omaha through positive, practical business ethics education.
BEA will bring its mission into a one-day event, the EthicSpace Conference, to help organizations be more ethics-focused the other 364 days of the year, Robinson said. EthicSpace takes place Thursday, Oct. 13, at CHI Health Center. Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins will be the EthicSpace Conference’s keynote speaker.
“The Business Ethics Alliance is a community committed to having ethics at the forefront of how for-profit and nonprofit businesses operate. Business ethics matter: you know it, and your team knows it,” Robinson said. “At the annual EthicSpace Conference, business professionals and leaders come together to make time and space for business ethics conversations and learning.”
Creating a Culture of Success
The EthicSpace Conference is for Omaha business professionals in all sectors, Robinson said.
Its main objectives are to highlight the importance of ethical decision-making and psychological safety as it relates to creating a culture of success and trust; to examine the ethical decisions and dilemmas that led to the Enron collapse to avoid repeating the same mistakes, and to identify best practices for making ethical decisions and communicating in an effective and respectful manner.
“The conference is rich in content. I hope the Omaha business community and Omaha institutions show up in force and encourage their employees to show up,” said Dvorak Law Group founder and Executive Vice President David Mayer.
“Everyone that shows up, I hope they’re looking for one thing or a couple of things that impact how they think about business ethics, or how they think about their role in positioning their company ethically, or how they think of their role in supporting the ethical decision-making of their teams.”
Union Pacific Chairman, President & CEO Lance Fritz said he hopes participants return from the EthicSpace Conference with “practical tools and processes to get to the right answer when it comes to ethical dilemmas.”
Fritz is in his second year as chairman of BEA’s group of trustees. His company has been involved since the organization’s earliest days and Fritz has been involved for more than a decade.
“It’s unique to Omaha; there’s no other large city that has an organization like the Business Ethics Alliance that’s convened around business ethics … I believe in the mission and the work of the Business Ethics Alliance. I think it makes Omaha uniquely attractive to our employees and I think it matters to the Omaha business community,” Fritz said.
Mayer is in his second year chairing the BEA’s governing board. In 2014 he was brought into the organization by founding partners Robert Bates, a local business leader, and Beverly Kracher, Robert B. Daugherty endowed chair in business ethics and society at the Creighton University Heider College of Business.
“Those two really spearheaded the growth and idea of this organization and all of us are humbled to be a part of the continuation of their efforts; I’ve been very privileged to be part of the transition from that founders group to the next generation of leadership. We’re all under the mindset of ‘pay it forward,’” he said.
“I think [Bates and Kracher] perceived having a lawyer on the Business Ethics Alliance governing board would be something that would be in the best interest of the board and a good mouthpiece for the organization.”
Mayer said the chair role provides an opportunity to “make a bigger difference.”
“In my role as a lawyer, I influence clients, but this gave me a bigger, broader platform to work from to promote ethical decision-making,” he said.
New Ethical Concerns for Businesses
As the United States — and the world — emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are seeing a shift in ethics concerns.
“The pandemic has changed business for all of us. Many businesses across the country saw their supply chains interrupted, demand for their products and services decline, shortages in supplies and inputs, and government-mandated closures,” Robinson said. “We are all in a stage of reimagining culture.”
Businesses are facing steep inflation, Fritz said, which creates pressure for companies of all sizes but opportunity for honest self-assessment in response to such questions as “Are you gouging?” and “Are you really in need of the price increase?”
Other ethics considerations are internal and at all levels, Fritz added. For instance, are employees working from home providing the hours of work they’re reporting? Or, how do you ensure equity for employees who work in the field versus in the office?
“The world’s a tough place right now, full of a lot of conflict and a lot of opportunity for individuals to think ‘ethics is what I can get away with.’ It’s very important that we don’t devolve to that standard. Ethics isn’t doing what you can get away with,” he said. “Ethics is doing the right thing regardless of circumstances, regardless of whether anyone is paying attention or not, and putting that judgment criteria against what you do every day in every situation.”
“What’s the right way to bring people back to work? What’s fair, what’s compassionate and, ultimately, what’s ethical?” Mayer said. “Businesses are designed to make money for their shareholders, but at what cost? And how do you make sure you’re putting the best interests of everyone and the company in the context of whatever decisions you’re going to make with workforce issues?”
He added, “Business Ethics Alliance allows for business leaders and the employees they govern to discuss these challenging topics and make sure they make the right decisions; it’s a platform to grow future ethical leaders.”
An emerging and challenging ethical dilemma is how to manage political divisiveness, especially when the employee base is large and diverse.
“It’s our job to sift through that and figure out: What’s the appropriate role for me to play? What’s the appropriate topic and position on that topic?” Fritz said. “And it won’t please everybody. I can guarantee that if I take a position on something, I’m going to have part of the company say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly right,” and part of the company saying, ‘Why are you talking about this?’”
Events like EthicSpace are important now more than ever, Mayer said.
“You want businesses to have ethics in the forefront of their mind and having organizations like this have a forum for training and tools surrounding ethics helps everybody move forward and address those ethical issues,” he said. “I don’t think the scale of a business matters. It’s about doing the right thing for right reason.”
A Great Reflection
The EthicSpace Conference is a great step, Fritz said, but he emphasized that BEA serves the community year-round.
“What we really love about the BEA is that they’re an effective tool we can use, and a collaborator and convener so we can learn from others’ perspectives,” he said. “I’m very proud of Omaha and the founders for putting together the Business Ethics Alliance. It makes us unique and it’s representative of the fabric we’re made from: we’re salt-of-the-earth, middle-of-the-country, say-what-you’re-going-to-do-and-follow-through kind of people. Our society is built from that. And I think the Business Ethics Alliance is a great reflection of that raw material.”
To find out more about Business Ethics Alliance or the EthicSpace Conference, visit businessethicsalliance.org