Say you're a clerk at the Douglas County Treasurer's Office and a woman comes in to transfer ownership of her car to her son, but he hasn't signed the title.
"It's OK, I sign his name all the time," the woman says, reaching for a pen.
No, no, you say. That's not just bending a rule. That would be breaking the law, which requires owners to sign auto titles.
That bright line of the law is one difference in ethical decision-making between running a government office and running a business office: Businesses must stay within the law, but arms of the government are charged with enforcing laws.
Yet the principles of ethics — treating people fairly, avoiding conflicts of interest, being honest, respecting people's freedom, accepting responsibility — apply equally to business and government, according to a program called Elevate Ethics Academy.
More than a dozen businesses have piloted the academy, and now a broadened version is open to businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies in the Omaha area. The program, developed by the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance at Creighton University's Heider College of Business, gives managers and executives the tools and confidence they need to keep their operations on an ethical pathway.
Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing said he wanted his office to take part in the pilot program to build on the ethics training that his staff receives annually. His office was the first governmental agency to participate in the program.
"Ethics is more than just the idea of dealing with money," said Ewing, a retired deputy police chief. "It's how you deal with people in your organization, how you deal with your customers."
Ewing had taught courses on investigating ethical complaints for the Ethics Alliance, drawing on his experience as a fraud investigator for the Omaha Police Department.
"I believe it's important to not only trust your people but also to verify that people are doing the right things," he said.
Ewing campaigned for office in 2007 partly on a promise to restore fiscal integrity to the Treasurer's Office. A manager was convicted in 2005 of embezzling $120,000 over a period of years. Soon after taking office, Ewing fired an employee after a routine examination of the handling of bad checks.
That's the kind of problem that the Elevate Ethics Academy tackles in its four 90-minute sessions.
In a room last week at the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center, the Ethics Alliance's education and research manager, Rebecca Shively, led 25 managers and supervisors from the Treasurer's Office through a discussion about making decisions to resolve ethical dilemmas.
Sometimes both choices of action seem right, she said, citing the case of an employee who wants to warn a co-worker who is buying a house that he is about to be fired.
Should the worker keep quiet or tell his co-worker?
You can defend both choices, Shively said, and neither is ideal. The important thing is to slow down, make sure you understand the situation and consider how the different options would affect the people involved.
During the session, some of the attendees said their choices in a government office are limited by legal requirements.
"Policy, we can work with you," one said. "Statutes, we don't get to."
Another scenario concerned a person seeking a refund on taxes and licensing fees, saying he had sold his car and needed the money for medical expenses. But he had missed the legal time limit for a full refund.
"I'd reach into my own pocket if I had to," one manager said. "A lot of people come up with a story," another said. "How do you know it's true?"
Nunzio Gagliolo, who manages the Treasurer's Office at 108th Street and West Maple Road, said treating customers fairly is an important part of government work.
"We see some very difficult customers every day," he said. "There's some, we know they're lying between their teeth. We have our policies and guidelines that we have to follow."
The group also discussed how a supervisor should deal with a troublesome employee who misses work and doesn't interact well with the public and fellow employees. Some suggested referring the employee to an assistance program and taking other steps before firing.
Their consensus was that it would be more difficult to fire an employee at a government office than at a business because of strict rules on hiring and firing.
In any case, Shively said, it's important to embrace a process for making ethical decisions because problems can arise suddenly. "It becomes easier with practice," she said.
Beverly Kracher, director of the Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton, said the session for the Treasurer's Office was complementary as part of a pilot program for the academy. So far this year, nine businesses are signed up for the academy, which costs $4,500 each for a program with 25 people.
No other government agencies have signed up. A grant is available for some nonprofit agencies to participate.
Kracher said government offices may be subject to employee hiring-and-firing laws, but so are businesses, especially large ones, and the principles taught in the academy work in both situations.
The academy's decision-making model calls for understanding a dilemma, imagining the options, thinking through the consequences of each option and deciding on the right thing to do and why.
"This applies across organizations, whether they're small, medium or large, for-profit or not-for-profit or governmental agencies, not only in business but in our personal and professional lives," Kracher said. "We are interested in positive, practical business ethics, and we want our tools to be practical, too."
In addition to decision-making, academy clients can choose topics including ethical leadership, ethical communications, recognizing ethical "blind spots" and generational differences. Participants get follow-up practice exercises by email so they can stay attuned to ethical concepts.
In the future, Kracher said, the academy will add workshops on confidentiality, worklife balance and other topics. The alliance has community programs and is starting a Business Ethics City Lab to test concepts and practices in the Omaha business community.
Treasurer Ewing said his office's supervisors have a responsibility to be ethical leaders for the 100-person staff.
"We want it to permeate the organization," he said, "because our leaders in the organization will make sure that everybody does the right things."
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