Leading by Example: Business Ethics Alliance’s Michael Robinson

A business scandal sparked the creation of Business Ethics Alliance in 2008. Today the organization guides the local business community in ensuring ethical practices that enhance success.

In most organizations, employees learn through the example of others. Sometimes the lesson is what not to do, said Michael Robinson, who joined Business Ethics Alliance as executive director and CEO in November 2020.

“Having experienced years of unethical practices as an executive, I firmly believe that an organization’s collective goal must be the health and well-being of their employees,” Robinson said. “The Business Ethics Alliance was a good fit for me professionally because I truly believe that ethics is a process of values, principles and purpose … It comes down to trust, values and lived experiences. I now have the pleasure of helping organizations make ethical decisions that not only influence the company’s success, but improve employees’ lives and overall engagement.”

The Business Ethics Alliance was founded following the Enron scandal, which involved questionable accounting practices resulting in bankruptcy for Enron Corporation, which had a significant Omaha presence, and the demise of accounting firm Arthur Andersen. In 2005, Dr. Beverly Kracher, holder of the Robert B. Daugherty Endowed Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, joined forces with Omaha business leaders to discuss local business ethics education. In 2006, the Heider College of Business approved the formal creation of a business ethics group originally called the Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics when it launched in 2008. Kracher led the organization for 12 years before Robinson succeeded her.

“The Business Ethics Alliance, the only city-level ethics initiative in the nation, was created through a partnership with the Heider College of Business, Better Business Bureau and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce,” Robinson said. “We are an Omaha-grown, unique ethics-based nonprofit organization that helps businesses create inclusive cultures where the discussion and practice of good business ethics is encouraged and expected.”

Robinson said his goals for the organization include training the next generation of leaders, diversifying funding streams, developing channels for the exchange of ideas, helping develop ethical business organizations and creating stronger bonds within the business community.

The Business Ethics Alliance has a board of directors chaired by David Mayer of Dvorak Law Group. The alliance also has more than 300 trustee partner organizations that serve as supporters and advisers; this group is chaired by Union Pacific Railroad President and Chairman Lance Fritz, with Patricia Kearns, president and CEO of QLI, serving as vice chair.

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“The alliance understands that businesses need help in how to navigate important, complex topics such as the city’s inclusion and diversity initiatives, or potentially controversial current events with their workforce, their customers, and within their community,” Robinson said. “The decisions we make and the actions we take will be determinative for the future of the Greater Omaha business community. We must stand together and create concrete solutions to our city’s ethical challenges.”

The organization initially took an academic approach to ethics education, Robinson said.

“The alliance evolved by implementing a culture focus, but ethics, integrity and trust will always be a staple of our organization,” he said. “We continue to enhance our services to individuals and organizations by identifying the ethical issues and helping put structures in place to guide decision-making where ethical knowledge is spread amongst all.”

Looking ahead, Robinson said the alliance is creating or continuing ethics education products and services along with opportunities for professionals to connect. Some examples include developing web-based platforms; working with businesses to increase staff retention and engagement; offering an emerging leader program for college students; and hosting or supporting industry-specific events, diversity/equity/inclusion ethics training, ethical culture assessments, conversations with CEOs, and ethics training or exchanges for executives, boards and nonprofits.

To find out more about becoming involved with the Business Ethics Alliance, community members can visit the organization’s website at businessethicsalliance.org, Robinson said. The alliance also has a podcast, The Business Ethics Podcast, available through Apple Podcasts.

“The Business Ethics Alliance has worked with organizations to bring ethics to the center of everyday life, bringing people from all walks of life together to have difficult but meaningful conversations,” he said. “As a not-for-profit, we rely on the support of the community and partners to bring to life our diverse range of events and products and services to life.”