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Keeping an eye on dubious business habits

This is a true story. And a cautionary tale for everyone working in construction, says Andrew Agapiou.

A man, let's call him John, had a job overseeing electrical work for a small company. He attended a site where his firm had fitted the electricity supply and the fire brigade had just put out a fire.

When John discovered that his company was at fault, his managers removed the evidence and told him to say it had been taken by the Fire Brigade. John wrote to his company about this but was ignored. Two months later, he discovered live wires at a primary school and again reported the problem to his firm.

At this point the managers became angry. John wrote them another letter. He was told that there was no work for him and then dismissed.

The subsequent Employment Tribunal found in John's favour and ordered the company to compensate him for all his losses.

This is just one of a number of unethical practices within the construction industry. There are plenty of examples of court cases involving the victimisation of whistleblowers and ethical transgression that go unreported.

According to some, improper or questionable bidding practices; misrepresentation of completed work or value of work; poor quality control or quality of work; and technical incompetence are all widespread in Britain's construction industry. OFT investigations of price-fixing cartels operating among contracting firms in the UK are symptomatic of an existing industry-wide problem.

Everyone will agree that unethical conduct damages reputations, erodes business relationships and trust within the industry. It almost certainly has the potential to drive up project costs. This can be disastrous to companies operating on razor-thin margins in a highly competitive environment.

For many companies, survival depends on repeat business. But this requires trust; unethical practice, on the other hand, breeds animosity. Ethics, therefore, has industry-wide significance. How should the construction companies and the industry itself move forward?

The emergence of Corporate Social Responsibility has given rise to a vast array of codes of practice that espouse commitment to employees, customers, suppliers, human rights and the environment. How should construction companies embrace this agenda?

We need to understand our clients' needs, in order to select clients whose ethics match our own. We can select our employees based on character, and we can grow them within the company to understand our values and ethics. If a company requires a code of ethics then what should it look like, what should it contain? It should be about doing the right thing.

Looking for suppliers you can trust, writing meaningful specifications, obtaining contractors noted for quality work, treating all suppliers fairly and reasonably. Company codes of conduct need support and need to be nurtured. Training, enforcement, a compliance officer, a hotline for those who have broken the rules, policies to ensure payment on time, partnering, personal relationships are all key to good ethical practice within the construction industry.

We all have ethics, but do we apply them and make decisions that reflect our ethical standards? No? Then, this is where a code of ethics may help you.

The internet has a wealth of information on writing codes of business ethics. Log on to http://www.ethicsweb.ca/codes/ to make a start.

Andrew Agapiou is Convenor of Professional Practice and Management in the Department of Architecture, Strathclyde University