Professional Responsibility and Construction Ethics – More Than Compliance

1 December 2018

Professional Responsibility and Construction Ethics – More Than Compliance  Image
In recent times the shortcomings of the construction industry have been scrutinised as never before. It is clear we are at a quality crossroads and as professionals we need to deliver a standard of practice which exceeds expectations to build and, perhaps, restore the public’s trust. In order to be able to deliver more than compliance in the built environment, we must first understand what compliance is and then consider what ‘more than compliance’ might look like.
I believe that there are essentially two types of compliance – conscious and unconscious. Compliance starts with learning how to do something, which over time becomes a habit which is then performed unconsciously. In the UK, we comply unconsciously to everyday things such as the expectation that we will be speaking English at meetings, that we will drive on the left and accept a common calendar and time system. Some unconscious compliance is not so absolute, such as being punctual for meetings and not jumping queues. These habitual courtesies can include keeping people at arm’s length when we talk to them; saying sorry when someone else bumps into us; respecting older people; and avoiding extended eye contact.

In professional practice we follow codes of practice and material standards which are all based on science and technology. We are unconsciously complying with the laws of science, material properties and technology which are embedded within the codes and standards. We just accept that these reflect how these materials really behave, depending on, and trusting others who put these codes together. We comply with them and carry on doing so until the codes change.

As professional people we comply with rules of professional conduct, including the CABE’s, under the headings of competence, integrity, responsibility and information. We comply with contract law and accept arbitration when things go wrong. We comply with statutes and regulations whether it is public liability, tax, employment or health and safety law. We comply with company procedures and, where required, industry practice such as the Considerate Construction Scheme. However, a significant question to ask is whether we only really comply when there is a chance we might get caught. Do we only adhere to speed limits where there are speed cameras?

Milgram experiment 

When conditions are right, we might do things we don’t really believe in simply because someone has asked us to do something. There is a group dynamic which encourages us to go along with others just to fit in, but in our hearts we may not feel that comfortable about it. Stanley Milgram’s well-known experiment from the early 1960s showed how far people would go when confronted with someone who appears to be in authority. In his electric-shock study, he found that people would often carry out an instruction that appeared to be causing great harm to others simply because they were ordered to do so by someone presenting themselves as an authority figure. Milgram found that over 65% of Americans subjected to this study administered a ‘fatal electric shock’ to another human being simply because they were told to do so.
Milgram’s controversial study, unethical by modern-day standards, on obedience to authority makes one wonder whether these findings are playing a part when it comes to compliance with Building Regulations. In gathering evidence for her report to Government, Dame Judith Hackitt reported that many professionals she spoke to about the Regulations felt that there was something wrong with them, and yet, they were still being followed.

Young people enter the industry with some education and training on the risks inherent on construction sites, but find it difficult to challenge the ‘authority figures’ in design offices to suggest that a different approach might be needed. The answer is often given that things cannot be done differently due to time constraints or because of the client’s wishes even when a proper understanding of the CDM Regulations would suggest that a different approach is needed. Is there an element of not doing something they believe in simply because an authority figure has told them no?

Compliance with belief and values 

Each of us has a core set of beliefs and values which drive our behaviors whether we are conscious of these or not. What if you sense that the law of the land is unjust? In these circumstances going beyond compliance might mean breaking the law. Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr all walked this path. Consideration of such actions drew me to question whether ‘more than compliance’ can only start from a position of personal beliefs and values; do ethics override all other considerations when it comes to compliance? Social norms drive and direct behavior, but what if the social norm is unjust or inhuman?

Consider women’s rights in the UK for example. Women were treated in a particular way, but it took the courage of one person to speak out about this injustice and declare it unacceptable and in doing so instigated change. By speaking out, others agreed. It became a social movement and ultimately things changed.

Gandhi once said: ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’ It’s a question we must ask of ourselves: ‘where do we apply our ethics, and how can we start to influence injustice that we see around us, perhaps in our own company procedures and processes or within the wider practice of the industry?’
Building Engineers have the opportunity to influence the whole industry by being distinctive and different. By speaking out and instigating change we can show a different way of treating each other and the business we conduct with other companies. Add your voice to the debate about what CABE should stand for and what it expects of its members. It’s time we questioned our personal ethics with that of the industry, and ask ourselves: ‘Am I prepared to make a difference for what I really believe in’?
Reverend Kevin Fear BSc (Hons) CEng MICE CMIHT CMIOSH Hon FaPSHealth & Safety Strategy Lead – CITB
Reverend Kevin Fear presented one of the Keynote Addresses at this year’s CABE Annual Conference. Watch it here.
CITB is the Industrial Training Board (ITB) for the construction industry in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). CITB uses its research and labour market intelligence to understand the sector’s skills needs, and works with industry and government to make sure construction has the right skills, now and for the future. CITB is modernising its funding approach to invest in areas that will deliver the best returns for industry, and enable the sector to attract and train talented people to build a better Britain.
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