Ethics could be something you learn from your parents as a child, or hear from the pulpit on Sundays, or hold internally as your conscience.
But businesspeople also can benefit by developing formal ethics policies and putting them into daily practice.
That's the goal of a workshop series scheduled this year by the Greater Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, an effort centered at Creighton University that has gained wide support from businesses in the Omaha area.
Participants in last year's ethics workshops, the first held in Omaha, say the sessions are valuable even for companies that already consider ethics an important part of their business culture.
“Having an ethical business and treating our employees, our clients and those we contact fairly and respectfully has always been how we do business,” said Sara Komen-Bonifant, corporate counsel for General Service Bureau, an Omaha-based collection agency. “We simply needed to firm up our ideas and policies into a more formal program.
“We wanted to know the best ways to get employee buy-in for such a program, how to train employees in what ethical issues are, to create a completely confidential reporting and investigation system and a means to adjudicate reports.”
The six workshop sessions, from September to March, are led by experienced ethics professionals at Omaha companies.
All you need is dedication to doing business ethically, to being ethical employers, to not just following the letter of the law but going even further and having the integrity to always do what is right, Komen-Bonifant said.
Participants are given “tools,” such as a step-by-step guide to writing an ethics policy, plus tactics for making the policy a working part of company life.
If a business doesn't have a formal ethics program, about 30 percent of its employees will report unethical behavior, said Beverly Kracher, the Creighton ethics professor who directs the Omaha alliance. At businesses with ethics programs, about 65 percent of workers will report unethical or illegal activity because they believe the company cares.
“A program will help people think a second time about whether they do something,” she said. The workshop also shows how to investigate complaints and carry out proper sanctions if necessary.
It's geared toward small and medium-sized businesses, Kracher said, but large Omaha corporations, including Union Pacific Corp. and Mutual of Omaha, take part as well. Large businesses tend to contract with professional ethics consultants, she said.
About 40 people attended last year's initial workshop sessions, with some attending all of them and some only a few. There's time in the workshops for people to discuss best practices and exchange information, and some participants stay in touch afterward.
“We're creating a community of people who can ask each other questions about what they can do to make this work,” Kracher said.
Komen-Bonifant said General Services Bureau formed an ethics committee that continues to develop and strengthen its program.
The committee, for example, helps employees maintain positive attitudes when they encounter accusations of unethical conduct of the collections business, she said.
“Both management and employees are working on developing ideas that make all of us feel increasingly invested in, and a major part of, the company we work for,” she said.
General Services Bureau also created reporting mechanisms the staff could use to anonymously report any ethical violations they witnessed or heard about.
“It's critical for businesses today to retrain their focus on ethics.”
Companies must go beyond just complying with the law, she said, and focus on “creating a productive, optimistic culture in their workplace where employees feel that they are part of guiding their company in a beneficial, ethical way, regardless of cost.”
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