If you’re a small business practicing smart ethics but are being edged out by larger companies who exhibit unethical behavior, what should you do?

This question was asked of me this week when I taught a class on Business Ethics at The College of New Jersey.

The student who inquired was obviously concerned. In today’s business environment it’s not easy for a smaller-sized operation to do the right thing and remain competitive. The payment industry — in which my company Heartland is a member — is notorious for deceptive practices among acquirer representatives in their efforts to sell to merchants. I am keenly aware of the struggle many respectable organizations endure.

So how did I answer the young man’s question?

I told the student that as a small business owner you can and should protest unethical practices. Regardless if you feel the big guys who deceive their clients are edging you out, you should continue to behave in a way that your customers will always trust you. And by this I do not mean with words, I mean with actions. Trust is a company’s most valuable asset.

I told him if you stick to your guns and do the right thing, you can survive. I know, because I did.

Speaking to these students gave me a lot of hope that someday the mistrust and unscrupulous behavior we see among corporations — in my industry in particular — will fade. These young people will see for themselves that the right way to build a business is through adding more customers and providing more services — not through merchant rip-offs and other misleading tactics.

In all my years of doing business (I launched Heartland in 1997 with only $1 million in capital), I never doubted that doing the right thing would not help my business grow. Our promise to customers when we founded Heartland was we help businesses prosper by providing them with effective solutions in a fair, honest and transparent manner. In the 18 years since then, Heartland has grown into the fifth largest payment processor in the U.S. We now process more than $120 billion in annual volume for 360,000+ customers. And our promise remains the same.

We’ve built our reputation on doing the right thing.

Being ethical in business is a choice. I’d like to believe that when the students in my class begin their business careers, that is the choice they will make, too.