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Omaha Magazine

Doing What's Right When No One's Looking

Jan 18, 2024 11:46AM ● By Steve Jordon
DOING WHAT’S RIGHT  WHEN NO ONE’S LOOKING b2b feature february march 2024 Omaha Business Ethics Alliance

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It wasn’t our plan to stop in western Nebraska, but a sticky mist from the truck ahead of us meant our car needed a wash. Magic Sudz Auto Wash at the Morrill exit on Interstate 80 came into view at just the right moment.

My daughter pulled into the self-service bay as I fed a $5 bill into the coin changer. No quarters emerged, and the paper money disappeared. “Just great,” I thought to myself. While my daughter drove into the automatic wash in the next bay, I called the “HELP” number on the wall. I didn’t know the fellow who answered, but he took my name, phone, and mailing address and promised to reimburse me. With the sticky mist washed off, we continued on our way.

A few weeks later, “Jay from the car wash” sent me a text: “The bill changer died, I think. I put your check in the mail today. I apologize for the delay. Thank you for your patience!”

Sure enough, a check for $5 arrived the next day.

Even though the odds of my being a repeat customer are infinitesimal, and even though nobody else knew what had happened, Jay Dietz came through.

“If there’s an issue, we try to make it right,” Dietz said via telephone later. “We want people to be coming back.”

Dietz is a partner with a friend in Magic Sudz, plus some self-storage units. It’s a side business: He’s a division manager at a manufacturing plant in Lyman, Nebraska.

Dietz said he hasn’t studied business or been trained in business ethics. 

“I’ve pretty much learned as I went,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to be good with what you’re doing. It’s the way I was brought up, and it’s the way it should be. You always try to do what’s right.”

Granted, the stakes were not high. That $5 check didn’t make a serious dent in Magic Sudz’s profits. But the principle is the same with a business decision that would make a difference between a profit or a loss.

As Dr. AnnMarie Marlier, Executive Director of the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, put it:  “Good ethics goes beyond just making sure that the customer is as satisfied as possible. Ethics is doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking. It’s how good businesses conduct their affairs and what they’re known for.”

Public attention to business ethics and values seems to be growing, because employees and customers can react quickly and publicly on social media to unethical or ethical conduct, she said. “We’re so used to hearing about things in real time.”

A company’s ethical standards can have a lasting effect. Years ago, Marlier was a Disney cast member—actually, an assistant store manager at a retail store in Milwaukee—and still recalls the Disney store’s mission: providing exceptional service, responsible business practices, and fun.

“You don’t start at Disney if you don’t have some alignment with the Disney mission and values,” she said.

Today, as head of the Ethics Alliance, her goal is to provide a safe, non-judgmental way for organizations to look at their own practices and learn from others so they can be sure they operate in line with good values and ethical standards.

The Alliance grew out of early informal discussions about ethics, plus Omaha’s brush with a major business scandal: the fraud-fueled collapse of Enron Corp. “When that debacle happened, the business community here in Omaha said, ‘That’s not who we are,’” Marlier recalled.

Among those discussing ethics several years before Enron was Butch Ethington, then an internal auditor at Union Pacific Railroad whose job included investigating rule violations. He soon learned that the company, like many others at the time, had a policy on conflicts of interest but no clear standards for common “bread and butter” ethical misconduct.

“When you used the word ethics, it was pretty confusing to a lot of people,” he said. “I’d get complaints. Somebody would say, ‘This manager has really foul language, and somebody needs to talk to him because there’s more women in the workplace now.’ So, I’d be the one to talk to him.”

But managers didn’t seem equipped to deal with situations, such as deciding when to fire someone for improper conduct, Ethington said. “I suggested to senior management that we needed some ethics education, some kind of training.”

Two Union Pacific vice presidents clearly articulated what business ethics means: Harris Wagenseil, a Rhodes Scholar who was vice president of maintenance operations, and John J. “Jack” Koraleski, who later became president, CEO, and executive chairman of Union Pacific Corp.

“Harris just nailed it, and so did Jack,” Ethington said. “Jack’s description was like a Boy Scout answer. It had all the elements of the Scout Law, so to speak, but very direct at the employee level—being honest and so forth. That gave us a direction for what we needed to do in a program to educate people, give them basic standards of conduct.”

The Enron scandal touched Omaha, because a local company named InterNorth was acquired by a Texas company that soon, too, acquired the name Enron and set up its headquarters in Omaha. But in 1986, Enron’s leaders moved the homebase to Houston. In 2001, Enron collapsed amid an accounting fraud that cost shareholders and employees—many of them Omahans—billions of dollars. Some of its executives went to prison.

“When the Enron scandal came along, everybody got more excited about ethics,” Ethington said.
Then, the discussion about ethics had broadened to include Creighton University professor Dr. Beverly Kracher, retired Air Force Sgt. Bruce Hamm, and James Swoopes, an executive with First National Bank of Omaha. 

The result was the 2008 formation of the Alliance, backed by the Better Business Bureau, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Creighton, and the business community.

“Beverly’s strategy was to expand it as much as possible to everybody because the real theme is to get better and have organizations share with one another what they are doing,” Ethington said. 

Members learned how to create codes of conduct, open employee hotlines, and take other steps toward encouraging ethical practices.

The motivation goes beyond feeling good about doing the right thing. 

Dr. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist of Workplace and Wellbeing at Gallup in Omaha, said good ethics means good business. 

“It’s a lot of the day-to-day things that add up,” Harter said, noting car wash owner Jay Dietz’s “internal ethical compass. He just knew the right thing to do,” plus his reputation is important to him and to his business. 

In larger organizations, employee perceptions can influence results such as returning customers, quality, productivity, and employee retention, he said. “We found that when employees perceive their leadership will do what’s right when they bring up an issue, they feel a lot more committed to the organization. They put in the discretionary effort that organizations are looking for.”

Solid ethical standards help employees feel more engaged in the company and its success. “When people are engaged at work, they’re much more likely to report an ethical issue if they see one,” Harter said. “A lot of that has to do with what they think their employer will do in response.”

The opposite is called “interpersonal deviance,” likely caused by a combination of someone’s innate personality and the work environment. “People who are less conscientious will be more likely to deviate,” Harter said. “But even if they have low conscientiousness, if they have a good work environment where they feel their employer has the right standard, where the employer will do what’s right, they’ll tend to do what’s right also.”

People who are treated with respect develop relationships with each other, both among co-workers and with their bosses, he said. “A big component in ethics is the relationship between people and whether they feel a sense of trust and feel cared about.”

For more information about the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, visit businessethicsalliance.org.

When Weighing Ethics, Remember, 
“Eddie Would Go”
By Butch Ethington
As I was driving down Center Street in Omaha, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Eddie Would Go.” The message referred to Eddie Aikua, a legendary lifeguard and surfer on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Eddie saved more than 500 people and became famous for surfing the big waves. When the waves were very high, most surfers would hesitate to venture out, but everyone said, “Eddie would go.”

In 1978 at the age of 31, he and a dozen others were on a voyaging canoe that sank 12 miles off the island of Moloka’i. Eddie paddled on his surfboard toward Lanai Island to get help and was never seen again. (The others eventually were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.)

Eddie was the embodiment of selflessness, bravery, and dedication in his lifeguarding service. Whether one is a lawyer, bus driver, doctor, electrician, pilot, financial analyst, or in any service occupation, you can learn from Eddie’s selfless dedication. Selfless behavior is a cornerstone of ethical leadership. 

When we say, “Eddie Would Go,” we are describing the fearless integrity of an individual when faced with adversity or barriers that normal people would not challenge. In business, sometimes individuals and leaders face difficult ethical issues and decisions. Making the effort, stepping up, trying to make a difference, is what is important...because “Eddie Would Go.”

Eddie’s unwavering dedication and accountability to the community and its welfare was the bedrock of his life. He took risks. Looking at the world, the situation, the waves, and seeing the dangers is one thing. Going after solutions and  improvements and addressing problems when faced with pushback in business, is hard. 

Eddie took on the difficult challenges with integrity and energy. Executives, supervisors, employees, and managers face difficult business issues. It is easy to look the other way, but “Eddie Would Go.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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