Ethics in the construction industry: the prospects for a single professional code

Author:Jim Mason
Position:University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to consider the potential for generating improved levels of ethical conduct within the construction industry through the introduction of a single industry-wide professional code. Design/methodology/approach – The Society of Construction Law's Statement of Ethical Principles (the Code) is used as a model. The paper consists of a... (see full summary)

Ethics and professionalism

Ethics is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as comprising the moral principles by which a person is guided. In the context of the behaviour of professionals, the same source expands its definition to include the duties owed to the public, to each other, and to themselves in regard to the exercise of their profession. This could be described as “doing the right thing” and, in a construction context, ethical behaviour might be measured by the degree of trustworthiness and integrity with which companies and individuals conduct their business.

The core of professionalism has been described ( Greenhalgh, 1997 ) as the possession and autonomous control of a body of specialised knowledge which, when combined with honorific status, confers power upon its holders. The exercise of this control by the respective professional bodies is often manifested in the promotion and enforcement of an ethical code. There are many examples of this within the construction industry, typified by the approach contained within the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors' (2007) Rules of Conduct for Members. There has been much debate on whether some professionals are “more ethical” than others ( Fan et al., 2001 ). The analysis suggests that the closer a professional is to the harsh realities of business, as indicated by their position in the supply chain, the harder it is to maintain ethical standards.

This last point rests on the assumption that ethics has a role to play in general business practice. The mere term “business ethics” has been called an oxymoron ( Ferguson, 1994 ). In recent times, there appears to be a greater consensus on this issue and it is now commonly recognised that the general concepts of ethics are applicable to business. This has been justified on the grounds that business exists not solely to suit certain individuals, but because business serves society and, in addition, meets collective and social needs ( Cohen and Grace, 1998 ). In other words, the spirit of any genuine profession cannot be achieved without an ethics component ( Bowie, 1991 ). The most recent expression of this altruistic/social agenda has been evident in the promotion and regulation of sustainability and environmental aspects of the construction industry's activities.

Aim of the paper

There are conflicting opinions as to whether or not the adoption of ethical codes has resulted in improved ethical conduct. Indeed, some commentators have even suggested that they can never be more than public relations “window dressing” ( Starr, 1983 ).

Be that as it may, a particular issue concerns the confusing proliferation of different pronouncements on ethics. The engineers, architects, surveyors, lawyers and construction managers directing and implementing each stage of the construction process each have their own ethical codes. The question has therefore emerged as to what is the appropriate ethical code to be used when multi-disciplinary construction work is being undertaken, and as to whether there is scope for the introduction of a single industry-wide code for all ( Beal, 1992 ).

This paper aims to address this question using the example of the Society of Construction Law's (2005) Statement of Ethical Principles, commonly now simply referred to in the UK as “the Code”. It first seeks an insight, by reference to previous studies, into the extent to which unethical behaviour is currently practised. After briefly considering the role that criminal sanctions might have to play in this regard it then undertakes a detailed critical analysis of the Code, and of its prospects for delivering ethical improvements in the industry.

The scale of the problem

It has been said that the cause of ethical failure in an organisation can often be traced to its organisational culture and the failure on the part of the leadership to actively promote ethical practices ( Brien, 1998 ). Whilst personal ethics are a reflection of beliefs, values, personality and background, any propensity a person may have towards ethical conduct is strongly influenced by the value systems reflected by their employing organisation. This often results in one's personal sense of what is right and wrong becoming buried amongst an organisations' non-observance of professional ethics. According to one study ( Pearl et al., 2007 ) a particular problem facing any professional community concerns the extent to which ethical quality control is exercised within its constituent organisations.

Australia and South Africa

Surveys have also been carried out into the ethical state of health of other national construction industries. An Australian study ( Vee and Skitmore, 2003 ) demonstrates the popularity in that country of using ethics codes. Of the 31 people surveyed, most subscribed to a professional code of ethics (90 per cent) and many (45 per cent) had an ethical code of conduct in their employing organisations. Despite this high incidence, half of the respondents reported that the subject of ethics never arose during business meetings.

The previously mentioned study ( Pearl et al., 2007 ) examined ethics in the South African construction industry and surveyed 63 professionals within the industry. A large proportion of the professionals interviewed were governed by ethical codes. Indeed, the profile of professional ethics had recently increased due to legislation governing the professions in South Africa which had been enacted during 2008. An important consequence of the new legislation was the official recognition of construction management as a “professional” discipline.

The approach taken by this study was to ask respondents about the incidence of unethical behaviour, in particular collusive tendering. The results were shocking but not untypical. The responses indicated that 100 per cent of the construction managers questioned had either witnessed or experienced collusive tendering, with 88 per cent of quantity surveyors in the same position. Over half of the architects questioned had also seen such collusion. Overall, this figures amount to 79 per cent of total respondents being involved with unethical behaviour. Neither was the incidence of unethical behaviour reducing. When asked whether the problem had increased in the last ten years 32 per cent replied in the affirmative. A total of 64 per cent considered that there had been no change and only 4 per cent felt that it had decreased. In their analysis of the results, the authors identified the severe depression in the South African construction industry during the period and suggested that local contractors may have formed groups to spread the work in an attempt to see off financial disaster.

USA and UK

A recent study ( Doran, 2004 ) collected the thoughts on the ethical state of the USA construction industry from 270 architects, engineers, construction managers, general contractors and subcontractors. When asked if they had experienced, encountered or observed construction industry related acts on transactions that they would consider unethical in the past year 84 per cent answered yes and 34 per cent said they had experienced unethical acts many times. And 61 per cent said that the construction industry was “tainted” by unethical acts.

Amongst the top five most critical...

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