The dictionary describes ethics as ‘a moral principle or code’. Because of this, in our world of relative tolerance, we tend to think of ethics as a very personal thing.
Lots of people think they are about compliance with the law, and those who consider them something more often think they are irrelevant to business. It goes like this: ‘Commerce is a tough race and if you don’t cheat, someone else will.’ Unfortunately, it’s likely that the recession will push this notion even deeper.
In my new book I describe ethics as a moral area beyond compliance. Because we have a personal accountability as well as a professional one, there is benefit in developing fair relationships that consider an alternative language with words like loyalty, trust, partnership or collaboration, and the notion of actions being ‘for the good of society’.
Take the word trust, which is tied up with ethics in a fundamental way. We often use it to mean we have a firm belief in something, or in someone who can be relied on. This is surely fundamental to business, too. It goes beyond compliance, and underlies our willingness and confidence to work with a customer or a supplier. We believe that they will pay us; they believe we will complete the work. It is not just something that suddenly appears in a partnership charter.
Today, young professionals in the industry are joining with their own ethical values and strong ideas on what ethics means. This will cover things such as sustainability, and a strong sense of a fair deal in their employment to allow them to develop. Their ideas of trust and loyalty might be coloured by the need to move around to get where they want to in their careers. They won’t think twice about leaving if they don’t see loyalty practised around them.
So are there any guidelines for young people coming into the construction marketplace? Is a professional code of conduct enough to guide us or is that just a limit on excess? My view is that we need to think about an ethical code which fits the company culture – an anchor, if you like, which represents the expectations of the company and recognises the expectations of the new young generation. What is the baseline over and above compliance? What beliefs and values need to be in such a code?
To marry the personal and the corporate side, a business needs to be focused beyond the notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’, which covers a business’s wider responsibilities towards society, and to take account of the professional obligations of those who work for it. These codes provide a challenge to company behaviour, but could bring commercial benefits.
One example of an ethical code comes from the Royal Academy of Engineering. It states that engineers should 1) be aware of the issues that engineering and technology raise for society, and listen to the aspirations and concerns of others, 2) actively promote public awareness and understanding of the impact and benefits of engineering achievements and 3) be objectively truthful in any statement made in their professional capacity.
These ideas of professional leadership could be reinforced by responsible leadership at project level. The code encapsulates the idea of a transparent, open and responsible leadership in important goals which affect the good of society, promote value and reduce risk for a project. To do this, companies and individuals need to consciously creating a culture of trust where communications are clear and truthful.
Peter Fewings is programme leader for the MSc Construction Project Management at the University of the West of England