It’s not easy to succinctly describe what exactly “business ethics” means, said Jim Hegarty, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Nebraska, South Dakota, and parts of Kansas and Iowa.
“That’s a big question, and one of the ways we like to simplify that at the Bureau is, ‘It, oftentimes, is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.’ I think, from a business perspective, it’s voluntarily understanding what your responsibilities are and being willing to adhere to a code of business conduct that you can be proud of,” he said. “From our accredited businesses’ perspective, it’s really a commitment to approach all business dealings and marketplace transactions and commitments with high integrity.”
He added, “It’s not just the way in which you interact with customers, it’s the way in which you interact with vendors, with suppliers, with partners … I think it’s also understanding the importance of taking care of your employees and providing a culture that supports the employee.”
Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., has taught and advised in business ethics for decades. She’s the founder of the Business Ethics Alliance as well as the holder of the Robert B. Daugherty chair and professor in business ethics and society at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business.
“It’s about striving to do what’s right versus wrong, what’s good instead of bad; looking long-term and not just short-term; and striving to be noble, to be honorable and true in workplaces, organizations and all business dealings,” she said. “Success can be measured by financial gain, but at end of it all, it’s about feeling good about what you did, whether it’s creating jobs, caring for the environment, or having all your vendors say, ‘It was great working with him or her.’ Business ethics creates success of the kind that is deep and meaningful.”
Kracher added that adhering to ethical practices isn’t necessarily easy.
“We always try to have this rosy picture of, ‘If you do the right thing, you’re always going to be financially successful and be able to keep your business open,’ but it’s not true. You [can] take a big risk when you act with integrity,” Kracher said. “But consequences can also be good, and the way I define success is feeling good about yourself and about the institution or business when all is said and done.”
Peter Fink’s company, Certified Transmission, was the first business to be awarded the BBB Torch Award (then called the BBB Integrity Award) in 1995. Certified Transmission has been a BBB member for nearly four decades and Fink joined the board shortly after his company won its Integrity Award. He said a good rule of thumb for business owners is striving to provide service to customers at the same level as if they were a family member.
Fink agreed with Kracher that today’s marketplace is challenging, especially in a time when a single dissatisfied customer can leave a black mark in a sea of positive online and social media reviews, or widely share statements that are unfair or inaccurate. Nevertheless, he said, customer feedback is motivating, as a good reputation gives companies something to live up to.
“I always had the belief in, and tried to foster, taking care of the customer,” he said. “That’s what we’ve always believed in, and that’s what we’ve trained in … It’s the right thing to do, to take care of people and help people.”
Protecting the Community
When Hegarty joined the Better Business Bureau in a marketing position 27 years ago, it was strictly local and called the Omaha Better Business Bureau. He’s led the local Bureau for 17 years and also served in numerous roles at the national level, and is the immediate past board chair of the International Association of Better Business Bureaus.
“Our bureau has evolved into a regional BBB that serves four states. When I first came to work for the Better Business Bureau, we were supported by 600 businesses. We’re now supported by nearly 10,000 businesses in our four-state regional area. We’ve become one of the largest and most respected Better Business Bureaus in the North American system,” he said.
The organization has evolved, but the mission has stayed the same, Hegarty added.
“Our mission is to be the leader in advancing marketplace trust,” he said. “We do that in a variety of ways.
“I think most people understand the role we play in denouncing substandard business practices, and the Better Business Bureau is very focused on protecting our community when there are bad actors that have the potential to impact them. But we are also very focused on celebrating marketplace role models, which is one of the main purposes of our Torch Awards, and we are deeply committed to creating communities of trustworthy businesses so that when either businesses or individuals need companies they know that they can trust and count on, they can rely upon the Better Business Bureau to direct them to companies that have made a commitment to our standards.”
Torch Awards for Ethics
This year’s Torch Awards for Ethics luncheon returns Sept. 21 for its 25th anniversary after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, which takes place at Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista, honors businesses and nonprofits in the Omaha metro area and southwest Iowa.
“We spend so much time at the Better Business Bureau in the trenches warning consumers and businesses about schemes and scams; it’s pretty hard to go through a week where you’re not going to see me or one of our spokespeople on one of the local television stations talking about someone who’s been taking advantage of. To be able to pause each year and spend some time in the light of good business and celebrate marketplace role models is certainly one of the more rewarding aspects of the year,” Hegarty said, adding that he’s seen the celebration grow from a handful of attendees in the first years to the recent celebrations for 800 to 1,000 people. “It’s been inspiring and rewarding.”
Kracher noted that the event celebrates nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike, with the same goal.
“The people who earn the awards get to stand up and talk about why they do business the way they do,” Kracher said.
Businesses and nonprofits do not need to be BBB-accredited to apply for Torch Award consideration.
“These awards are all about evaluating businesses on their commitment to our standards, so they’re standard-based awards,” Hegarty said. “They are judged by panels of independent judges that are not affiliated with or employed by the Better Business Bureau.
“These awards are designed to recognize businesses for their exceptional commitment to business ethics, to integrity, to taking care of their customers and employees in ways that oftentimes go beyond what would be reasonably expected … They are being rewarded essentially for their professional and business character rather than their bottom line.”
Kracher said events like this are important when there is so much bad news about business practices.
“We need to have ceremonies that celebrate the positive business practices,” Kracher said. “It can help balance out the negativity we hear about businesses in the news.”
The luncheon also has a student recognition component, Hegarty said.
“Our BBB Student of Integrity scholarship program is really designed in the same way. It’s not based on academic performance or athletic performance; the award is based primarily on high character,” he said. “These students are selected by their teachers, their counselors and their administrators at their schools for being students whose character has stood out throughout their high school experience in a way that was undeniable to everybody that observed them.”
The Torch Awards luncheon keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter John Carreyrou, whose book “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” follows his Wall Street Journal reporting on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest corporate frauds in history.
Kracher said the Theranos scandal “will go down in history as a case study” like the Enron scandal and called it “a fascinating story of a downward spiral” of not being able to produce what is promised and how people can get caught in a cycle of greed and corruption. She also said the story is as much about the courage of the people who stood up and helped bring the company’s fraudulent practices to light.
“The speakers we select to be the keynotes at our awards program are selected because of the timeliness of what they’re involved in. We’ve had some really remarkable speakers over the years,” Hegarty said. “John Carreyrou is an extremely interesting and engaging speaker, and he promises not to disappoint. We think the crowd will be enthralled by this story and we are so excited that we were able to secure him for this event.”
More information on the event is available at BBB.org/OmahaTorch.