An Interview with George Little, CEO of HDR
By Tyler Lindstrom and Mohamadain Mohamed, Creighton University MBA students

What’s your background Mr. Little? Where were you raised?

George Little, the CEO of HDR, is a southern gentleman. He was raised in Alabama where quotes about strong character from Alabama’s football coach, Paul Bear Bryant, were treated like gospel. He attended University of Alabama-Birmingham. He graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science degree. He joined HDR in 1989 and prior to his appointment to president, he was chief operations officer and executive vice president. He was responsible for developing the formal quality assurance and quality control programs. Mr. Little served as President of HDR Engineering, Inc. since 1998. He has been CEO and President of HDR Inc. since December 13, 2011.

How do your upbringing and family values play into your ethical development?

He replied, “Absolutely”. His grandparents instilled strong values in him when he was young. He added, “I was surrounded by good people throughout my childhood.”

Have you had any ethical mentors?

Mr. Little said, “Yes, there is a guy who hired me in Minnesota, Minneapolis, in our local office that show me how to do it right.”

What do you like most about your work? Least?

Mr. Little enjoys working with his employees now close to 10,000, about 90% of them in USA. He said he likes the Q & A aspect of his job so he can fully engage and interact with his employees. He said that he is always ready and willing to answer their questions. His least favorite activity is dealing with HR issues. He finds his job to be rewarding and he is rewarded by positively influencing his employees by demonstrating passion, resilience, and a strong work ethic.

Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you? Do you think there is a difference between “ethics” in general and “ethics” in business?

For this question, his response was simple. Mr. Little said, “Do the right things for the right reasons all the time.” He added, “It has to be at your core.” In George Little’s world, it’s simple because a strong ethical code is at his core. That was revealed when I asked him if there was a difference in professional ethics and personal ethics. He immediately said, “No.” He went on to say, “I believe that there is no difference between ‘ethics’ in general and ‘ethics’ in business.” It is the same thing for him. He wants to set an example for the whole company and be a role model for his employees.

Is there a formal ethics program at your firm?

Yes, HDR has implemented a formal ethics program three years ago. After someone is hired, they sign an ethical standard document. As the firm began to scale up, formalities became necessary. They went from 1,600 to 10,000 employees in the past 20 years. So, three years ago when their international business partners hinted at the idea, HDR made their ethical code formal. As it can be difficult for some organizations to identify their culture, within HDR, it was simply transferring those ethical core values onto paper. He said, “Our core ethical values are in our company’s DNA and genetic make-up.”

Talk about the ethical culture at your organization. Is it in line with your corporate culture? Was the program well received by employees?

On day one the employees are expressly given a strong statement regarding ethics. For the other issues that are not so simple, certain actions are taken to ensure compliance and success. HDR has an anonymous hotline for all employees to use if they find themselves in a compromising situation. Their concern will land on the legal team’s desk. This allows employees to voice their concerns and address their employment grievance without the fear of negative unintended consequences from fellow colleagues or management. The ethical program was well received because it reflected the culture at HDR.

What are some common ethical issues within the industry?

Some ethical issues are cut and dry within the industry. “Well, it is highly unethical to see bids for contracts before the decision to finalize a deal”, said Mr. Little. Also, like many businesses, bribes are actively discouraged. Furthermore, when negotiating contracts with potential clients, it is essential that labor costs are determined before moving forward towards a contractual agreement. HDR encourages absolute transparency. These ethical issues are reinforced when dealing with government entities because it is illegal to withhold material information. To further encourage ethical practices, business can be debarred from operating unethically/illegally in certain countries even if a company makes a mistake because of ignorance. He reaffirmed his ethical stance by saying, “You don’t need to play games to be successful.”

The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following…how do these values align with HDR?

  1. Accountability: They have an anonymous hotline which require an ethical standards document to be signed by employees and are expressly told of the core values at HDR.
  2. Community Responsibility: HDR has their own foundation which is focused upon having a positive influence within the communities they operate. They provide grants to non-profit organizations around the globe. They don’t just consider this to be civic duty, but a privilege.
  3. Financial Vitality: They don’t just have a presence within the community, they donate their time and a substantial amount of money to help others in various capacities.
  4. Integrity: As Mr. Little says, “Do the right thing for the right reasons”.
  5. Moral Courage: The hotline is a good example of moral courage, but Mr. Little’s example of moral courage does a better job of illustrating HDR’s ethical fortitude and ethical leadership. 

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

When Mr. Little was working with clients as an electrical engineer, he was working directly with a contractor when there was an explosion. The potential downside was for some involved to be dishonest to protect their self-interest. A contractor was hurt bad. He saw the potential danger of that incident. He asked a supervisor of his crew to talk to everyone involved to make sure they got this right. He collaborated to bring together a uniformed and ethical account of the incident. After the collaboration, everyone was honest, so it was a positive result for all those involved. In the end, there was a small settlement for the employee that was injured and the supervisor.

We I asked Mr. Little if he believes that incident had and impact of the trajectory of his career, he quickly dismissed the idea like a humble man. However, we believe his actions demonstrated his leadership qualities and revealed much of his character.

Why did you call the previous situation ethical? Why not say, “it’s just business?”

He said that situation wasn’t “just business” because individuals could’ve acted on their own and it was more than business because there were physical injuries. It was necessary to gather everyone together in order hold all the people involved accountable and do the right thing.

What do you think about the philanthropy in general? How does HDR give back?

Mr. Little said, “Some of our employees are personally involved in community activities and that part of HDR culture and one of our cores values is to give back to the community as a philanthropic measure.”

What ethical issues do you consider when dealing with commodities/resources that could potentially be scarce, like water?

He said, “We deal with the bread and butter situation; the infrastructure, environmental permit, and a water resource model that does not harm the environment. Within the environmental model, we need to be honest and transparent.” He added, “We want to set an environmental model.”


© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance