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The Only Way Is Ethics

20 May 2019

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CABE has published its new Code of Conduct – and it’s more important than you think.

Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States of America once said ’It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t’. 

It would be interesting to know whether President Van Buren would stick with such a statement if, rather than taking up law and then politics, he had pursued a career in the construction sector.

Construction markets throughout the world share many characteristics:

•they are creators and sustainers of great wealth – more than 70% of global investment resides in property

•involve a high level of competition

•demand complex managerial and technical skills; and

•are associated with high risk, both in terms of health & safety and financial returns.

With so much wealth invested throughout the construction process, you would think that construction would be a high-value high-performing industry; an industry where investment drives better performance over time. Unfortunately, as we are all painfully aware, this is far from the truth.

Client bodies general preference for lowest priced tendering has, over many generations, produced construction markets which are highly cost responsive and focused on reducing price in order to win work. This is based in an approach primarily aimed at minimising capital cost, but which has also given clients immense bargaining power. As a result, construction business’ have little leverage to induce demand or dictate practice, a weakness compounded by the sectors vulnerability to investment cycles as economies go through periods of growth and recession.

Whilst these are global factors, they are clearly reflected in the sectors where Building Engineers work on a daily basis.  In order to survive the economic cycle, construction business working on thin margins have to be able to expand and contract rapidly whilst remaining competitive.  This is the prime driver for the evolution of an industry where the need to pass risk and responsibility onwards and downwards is hardwired into contractual DNA; where arguably it has become necessary for too many actors in the supply chain to do the minimum possible required and let someone else argue about resultant problems, rather than do the good job that most of them would, in fairness, prefer to do. 

The end result is not only an industry that is almost perpetually overtrading, and characterised by expectations of poor performance and quality, but also one where the impact on people’s safety can be catastrophic.

We all know that this has to change – and that change starts with every one of us.

As Building Engineers and professionals, no matter how competitive the business environment is, we have a duty to ensure that we are thinking clearly about the implications of the decisions we make for people, safety and the environment.  We must behave in a way which is respectful, open-minded and enhances our reputation. We all know this can be tough – but ensuring we live up to high standards of professional behaviour distinguishes ourselves as leaders and starts to make the difference to the industry’s culture that is needed.

That is why I am very pleased that in April Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE) published a revised Code of Professional Conduct. Much of the code will be familiar to members, but there some really important changes of which members need to be aware.

Firstly, the new Code sets out in much clearer terms what is expected of Members in terms of mandatory membership requirements including CPD; reporting to CABE of relevant criminal convictions, bankruptcy or insolvency; requirement to co-operate with any complaint’s procedures; use of CABE postnominals and logos; and an overarching commitment not to bring CABE into disrepute. 

Secondly the Code sets out a single set of Standards which need to be met by individuals, businesses partners, and any firm where CABE members are Directors, owners or partners. The revised Code is central to the way that CABE expects members to behave and focus on requirement act professionally at all times, manage risk responsibly, ensure competency in their role as a Building Engineers and promote sustainability.

The new Code of Professional Conduct is supported by an entirely new Guide to Ethical Professionalism which expands on all the above themes to give common examples for consideration of how these issues might manifest in day-to-day work. 

The new Code and Guide come into force for CABE Members on 15 May 2019.

These are important documents for CABE in being able to deal with complaints, but they must be more than that. We need to continue to emphasise the critical role that we all play in building an industry where ethics are a consistent and valued part of our decision-making and working environment. 

It is only by raising these issues and values and being willing to stand by them when advising clients, solving problems or making decisions that we will re-build trust in our industry, and help build a better construction sector overall. 

Clearly, there are also real questions about client culture and business practice which need to be addressed, and we must continue to demand that the culture change we begin is reflected in stronger regulatory frameworks and a move away from adversarial and bottom priced business models. But there is no reason why we can’t start to make a difference ahead of statutory change.

Returning to where we started, Martin Van Buren was (according to Wikipedia at least) an average or below average president. It would be better then to consider the words of George Washington, unarguably a greater leader, who said ‘Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company.’ We can, and should, all agree with that.

As a CABE Member make sure you take the time to read the new documents and understand what the changes mean for you.

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