Right At Home

An Interview with Allen Hager, Right At Home CEO
By Clement Allou and Kathryn Onorato, Creighton University Business Administration & Negotiation and Dispute Resolution graduate students

A versatile discussion on ethics from an individual with a professional background from state legislator to health care, this is an eye opening article to explore as you expand your knowledge on the expansive topic of business ethics. Allen Hager of Right at Home, sat down with us to discuss sensitive and critical ethical issues when working with families and those reliant on outside care for their family members. Mr. Hager revealed his observations in differences in ethics from Nebraska to his experiences while traveling in Thailand and throughout the world.

Mr. Hager left us with some very valuable comments to reflect on and we would like to leave one with you as you begin the article:

“What is really ethical is to make a situation where everyone feels they have access.”

What is some of your personal and professional background?

Well I received my Masters in Business Administration from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. I have worked as a legislator in West Virginia as well as in hospital administration. While working in hospital administration I wanted to find alternatives to institutions for elderly who needed care and assistance. I took my experience from hospital administration and wanted to put it towards creating a service that provided care for the elderly. I originally started in Omaha and the company has grown to 43 states and 8 countries with 350 offices total.

What do you like most about your work and least?

I definitely like that the work is a people driven business, there is a direct impact on individuals and families. I also see from this business that from individuals and families it spreads to a direct impact on the community. I also like to see people meet their personal potential! What I least like is when people are unfit for a job or unfortunately are not able to do the job they were hired for.

Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you?

Ethics is doing the right thing even if no one is watching or if no one would find out. I have seen a lot of interesting ethics experiences while traveling. I was always raised to do what was right even if it did not feel it was making a huge difference or matter to a lot of people. My parents really instilled this in all of us as children.

Do you think there is a difference between “ethics” in general (personal) and “ethics in business?”

I see more of a difference with this in other countries. To me, the United States has more of a focus on individual ethics and other countries, particularly Asian countries have more of a lens of group ethics and looking at all who are affected.

Is there a formal ethics program at your firm?

We survey with our franchisees and ask if they feel the leadership has integrity and does what they say they will do. We talk a lot about culture and culture of integrity. As we get larger we will probably need to go to a more formalized program. When asked if he thought the development of a program would be prompted by a negative development Allen stated no. “I think through our handbook and rights and responsibility document we are already setting high standards and do not see it starting from something negative.”

Talk about the ethical culture at your organization and an example of practice.

Honest mistakes are fine but you better not cover it up, we don’t want to sweep it under the rug. If the employee has done something and they have tried to actively hide it that is when we see an ethical issue occurring. A care giver could accidently drop someone, and something needs to happen immediately. This means calling a supervisor, there needs to be an incident report filed; we need to report to the family. Yes they made a mistake but we have made sure there is a system in place to deal with it directly.

Have you always done business in Omaha? If not, where else have you done business?

I have worked in state government in West Virginia and hospital administration as a manager. I started this business which has now branched out to 43 states and 8 countries.

The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following:  Accountability, Community Responsibility, Financial Vitality, Integrity and Moral Courage. Can you elaborate how these fit in your organization and what do they mean to you?

I love these business core values and they parallel with our business quite well and what we want to see. With accountability there is the whole idea of giving back to community.  With responsibility and financial vitality, well without that you don’t really have a business. Integrity and moral courage is a real issue in today’s world with political correctness to be able to exhibit those. It is something I have seen throughout our whole system, we hold franchisees accountable and survey them to see what they think of the interaction. The leadership and integrity is always the highest rated. Our company revolves around being responsible to communicate and make a difference. Moral courage is a tough one, most people are not called to it but it does happen in our business that’s for sure.  When you talk about an organization that provides health care, social model of care, and supportive care it is one on one and they are in a home with no one watching. It’s harder in an institutional setting to cover things up, here working with clients with dementia there is a potential to take advantage of that. We have built a management that is very specific about whom they put in a home, they sign off on policy. Here is an example, the clients of the care givers always want to give the care takers money.  Think about it these are elderly people who don’t see a lot of people. The caregiver helps give them more social opportunities to be outside provides better meals for them etc. The clients want to repay and they have in the past given cars, rings and we have to be very vigilant and clear at all times that we ensure integrity and these gifts are never accepted. 99.9 % of the time these issues don’t occur but if they do we need to have the moral courage to approach the situation and handle it with integrity.

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle?

One of the most important decisions we make is what franchisee we bring in, we have hundreds and are very cautious and have a whole process. They finally come in after weeks of discussion and we discuss ok are you going to be a part of it? I will give you an example, everything had seemed great! We were meeting with a potential franchisee, he was very charismatic and you would have liked him everyone said that he said he seemed great! He was perfect and had a successful business before. Well someone came in from the hotel he stayed at and said he was the rudest and most abusive person towards the staff. Instead of handling his complaints in a professional way he became very angry. Thank goodness we found that out before, it is hard to find out but it was an easy decision once we knew. Yes we invested a lot of money and time but imagine someone like that managing care givers in the home. We told the news to him like how it occurred and we said that we found out from the hotel. We told him we thought he handled the situation very poorly. He wasn’t happy but that was the outcome. The hotel was also concerned he would say they were horrible and they wanted to let us know so business wasn’t lost. The manager felt he was out of line as well. But I am very glad we found out!

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was hard to handle – who was involved, where, what did you do, why?

Here is a pretty hard one and it is probably hard to believe but some families are very dysfunctional. They do have troubles and that stuff doesn’t change.

For example, there has been many cases were we have been home taking care of someone and we highly suspect there is abuse going on. It is hard to know though. We can be taking care of someone and in the process, hear some verbal abuse which makes you wonder if there is physical abuse. We know for certainty we will be fired if we report it because the family would deny that a family member is abusing another family member.  Our staff is trained to counsel and how to make the right decision when this occurs. We had cases where we reported the abuse and we got fired but it was the right thing to do. All we could hope for is the investigators were good enough to know if it is real or not.

Why did you call the previous two situations ethical and not just business?

When you talk about ethics, you talk about the responsibility of leadership. Leadership is at the foundation stone of ethical behavior in any organization, because leadership is involved that’s business and a focus on business means ethics too. Here is some more perspective. The most important chief ethic officer for the United States is Barack Obama. He as the leader of our country makes decisions about how we put value on what things. He might not be the only one but he sets the tone. The leadership sets the tone of what culture would be supported and thrive in that organization.

How does it feeling talking with us about ethical quandaries you faced or talking about in the firm – is this something you do a lot – is ethics talked about or just assumed?

I think because I had a chance over the years you get comfortable with it. You get through a lot of ethical situations and dilemmas and start realizing that it is part of the human condition. Especially if you have to work in a people environment, you have to account for the challenges of the human psyche or group dynamics that occur within the organization. I believe as you can tell from my examples I have had experiences to realize every organization faces this, it’s a matter of how you respond to it.

Are there unethical behaviors that give other companies or business people a competitive advantage?

In our particular industry for example, there is a model by its very nature that I feel is pretty unethical called the registry model. How it is portrayed as a model is that we can lower your cost and put a person in your home to assist elderly in your family, you don’t have to pay an extra cost. They claim to be independent contractors and that is a false hood. There are only few employees in this field that are making ten to twelve dollars an hour that are independent contractors. The companies are making these employees be employees of the families they serve so they do not have the protection and insurance from an agency. It is a complicated issuewhich is why it can go unnoticed but the fact is the family takes all this risk because there are individuals in their family members home taking care of them who are not insured.

For example: The family hires this individual and they think everything is fine since these companies claim to be independent contractors. Then that person works for them for about a year and when the job is over, the person can file for worker unemployment although nobody has been paying for that. The same thing can happen if the person gets injured at the home site, maybe slip and fall on ice. Normally worker compensation pays for days off, vacation etc. But when the person goes and files, they look into it and ask who the independent contractor is. They see the name and it comes to the surface that they are not an independent contractor. You see the problem here. This is a national issue and an example in our industry.

Have you had any ethical mentor – who and why?

Absolutely! I had a boss, the CEO that brought me here. Actually two bosses, the other was from my former job. They were leaders, they cared about people, they were tough and not too easy but I came to see how being easy is often times unethical in business. Especially in a care given organization, if we have someone that is slacking and doing the wrong thing they can hurt someone so you have to make those tough decisions. That doesn’t mean they didn’t care about the person and were trying to get them to the right place, but these former bosses I noticed wouldn’t tolerate the incompetence.

How do your upbringing and family values play into your ethical development – do you see a connection between your upbringing and how you handle ethical situations at work?

Yes, I will give you a very good example. When I was about six years old, we were on a family vacation and I stole a souvenir gift at a gift shop at the resort and I hid it. When we were unpacking, my parents saw it and started to put pieces together. They figured out what I did and it became a huge deal for them. They didn’t want to fly all the way back to the location so they marched me to a family friends grocery store and they made me in public say I shop lifted this and it was the wrong thing to do. It was a little bit of public shaming and maybe politically wrong to do in today’s society but it made a huge impact on me. I saw how honesty played a role in my families life.

As you move up in the organization, have ethics playeda role in decision making?

Yes, constantly. I mean there are constant decisions at all levels of an organization. In the kind of organization that we are, you have to make decisions about the people that surround you, you have to make decisions based on what you think is right and wrong not necessarily what is going to bring you more capital or business.

What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professional today?

We all have to work toward having the ability for a regular person to feel like they have an even shot at having a good quality of life. Education and economic development are also the core value of ethics. There are not enough jobs on the market for younger business professionals. Look at Europe, they have a lot of young professional with Master’s degree and PhD but they cannot find a job. What’s really ethical here is to give people opportunities not to a few but to a broad number of people.

“Recognition of a problem is the way to work through the problem.”