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Being ethical in an unethical industry

Nov. 1, 2010
Today personal integrity and moral and ethical relationships are the cornerstones of your business. It is not only good business, but good for your business to act with personal integrity when dealing with clients and customers.

Ethical (adj) is defined as moral, principled, right, fair, decent, just.

Now put yourself in this scenario: A bank teller inadvertently gives you too much money when you make a withdrawal from the drive-up teller window. You would:

a) Keep the money and drive off. After all, the bank has plenty of money and you could sure use the extra greenbacks.

b) Park your vehicle, go into the bank and ask to speak to the teller and return the money quietly.

This isn't a choice of life or death, a la Frank Stockton's "The lady or the Tiger," but it is a choice between being self serving or doing the right thing. Put yourself in the bank teller scenario again, but not as the person receiving the windfall. Instead put yourself in the teller's position. The teller will be responsible for the shortfall in his or her drawer at the end of the day. If the amount is small, the teller will be docked that amount, if it is large, it might cost that person his or her job. If you were the teller, how would you feel? The unethical person might say something like, "They made the mistake they'll have to live with it." That’s a cold way to look at the world, and that philosophy will always come back to bite you in the butt. An ethical person understands that everything is not always black and white and a "moral compass" is required for navigating through the morass of human interactions.

That is the crux of ethics. Put yourself in the other person's shoes and see how they fit. Another way to look at ethics is doing the right thing, whether or not someone else knows you are doing it. As the title of this piece states, the construction industry is not very ethical in its entirety. To be sure there are many ethical people in the industry, but they are outnumbered by unethical people by a wide margin. This statement is not made in the esoteric abstract, but from a personal 45 year career in all phases of the construction industry. My own stories of dealing with ethically challenged contractors and subcontractors could fill a volume. If we added in the stories from other contractor and subcontractor friends, it would dwarf the Encyclopedia Britannica.

No one can give you a real reason for the lack of ethics in the industry, or any other industry for that matter. It's not important anyway. What's important is your own moral compass. Doing the right thing in every situation is not always easy, but doing the right thing each time, every time is the benchmark you should be striving for.

You work hard for your money. You must deal with competitors, general contractors, other subcontractors and customers constantly. Profits are slim as it is, and making the decision to do the right thing when, say, the opportunity presents itself to take advantage of someone else's misfortune or ignorance of a situation can easily be rationalized.

It's not always easy to do the ethical thing, but it is always possible to do the ethical thing. We appreciate it when a general contractor, or his field superintendent, act in a fair and ethical manner. This is when their words match their deeds and vice versa. Conversely, when we are lied to about payment, repeatedly cheated out of small sums or forced to do work which was not contracted for (to name but a few of the situations we have to deal with as subcontractors), it is easy to feel that the ends justify the means. They do not.

No one is saying that you should lie down and turn the other cheek. By all means, protect yourself. Fight for what is right and due to you. Just don't fall to the level of the people who are doing these things to you. Always maintain the high road even if it is difficult. You can still fight like a junkyard dog for your money or that unsigned change order, just do it in a manner consistent with good moral and ethical standards.

Today personal integrity and moral and ethical relationships are the cornerstones of your business. It is not only good business, but good for your business to act with personal integrity when dealing with clients and customers. It pays in good will for the short term and earns dividends in the long term in the form of solid, mutually rewarding relationships. The bonus is that you can still look at the guy in the mirror and know that you did the right thing. That's got to be worth something, isn't it?

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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