Last edited 20 May 2019

Ethics in construction

Ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that involves the principles of guiding and recommending behaviours and conduct. Stemming from the Ancient Greek philosophers, ethics is based on the central questions of ‘what is the best way for people to live?’ and ‘what actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?’ As a means of trying to answer these questions, ethics considers issues of good and evil, virtue and vice, justice and crime, and so on.

In a business, and construction, regard, ethics has developed both at a professional and organisational level. Professionals such as lawyers, engineers and surveyors have ethical codes to uphold as befits their profession, as do organisations. Ethical behaviour is often measured by the degree of trustworthiness and integrity with which companies conduct business.

Some of the largest construction contractors in the world have faced multi-million fines for significant breaches of ethics and compliance, on issues from bribery and collusion to modern slavery. A high profile recent example was in the case of contractors having blacklisted workers.

Ethics are a key facet of a companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) which they must endeavour to fulfill. An increasing emphasis on sustainability and environmental aspects of construction, further applies ethical standards to organisations and their activities.

Personal ethics are a reflection of beliefs, values, personality, and so on; while an organisation’s ethics must be instilled by its culture and leadership. Ethical failure in an organisation can often be the result of inadequate leadership promotion of ethical practices, as an individual’s ethics become subsumed among the wider non-observance of professional ethics.

In 2003, the Society for Construction Law considered the question of ethics in the construction industry. They published a report which highlighted that organisations should comply with the following ethical principles:

  • Honesty: Acting honestly and avoiding conduct likely to result, directly or indirectly, in the deception of others.
  • Fairness: Not seeking to obtain a benefit which arises directly or indirectly from the unfair treatment of others.
  • Fair reward: Avoidance of acts likely to deprive another party of a fair reward for work.
  • Reliability: Only provide services and skills within areas of competence.
  • Integrity: Regard for the public interest.
  • Objectivity: Identify potential conflicts of interest and disclose this to the party who would be adversely affected by it.
  • Accountability: Provide appropriate information so effective action can be taken where necessary.

The intention was that these principles were applicable to the work of all construction industry professionals. The Code identified unethical conduct as deliberate or reckless disregard for the ethical principles, as they would apply to the ordinary standards applicable to the activity being undertaken by reference to the recognised practice in that profession.

In December 2016, International Ethics Standards (IES) Coalition published the first set of ethics principles for professionals in land, property, construction, infrastructure and related professions.

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