On Surveying, Engineering and Ethics

Organizational Behavior – A Reflection of Organizational Leadership.

"Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it,  and virtue is doing it."
—David Starr

A few years ago, I received a call asking me to come to the site of a new office building that was about halfway to its intended height. When I arrived, I was greeted by several of the company’s principals and we moved into a large construction trailer where we convened around a makeshift conference table.  The table was a large sheet of plywood on a couple of sawhorses.

The president of the company said, “George, we have a major problem. We just discovered this morning that our building is sitting on two feet of the property beside us. The owner is livid and we aren’t sure what to do.”

That’s  not the kind of problem you want to face when millions of dollars are involved. I immediately sent one of our crews to the site and conducted a survey of the property. Sure enough, the building was two feet, three inches over the line.

The problem was eventually resolved, but the cost and time lost were astronomical. How did this happen? Two things are involved in preparing for construction, a survey and architectural plans. They had both, but the surveyor had not been honest and cut a few corners instead of conducting a proper survey.

 The surveyor’s dishonesty created an expensive mess. We discovered the way he got the job was his fee was less than half what other firms had proposed. That should have been a warning flag right there. But, often the survey is viewed as an unavoidable procedure, so get it done as cheaply as possible. Big mistake.

Fees are a reflection of a firm’s conduct and a client accepting your conduct is willing to pay the fee. Consider when you retain an attorney for a major business problem. Do you hire the cheapest attorney, or do you hire the attorney you consider to be the best and the fee is incidental?

Miami is blessed with excellent surveying and engineering companies. We have a code of ethics we adhere to; except for those who choose to fly under the radar and conduct cheap surveys that are just that, cheap. In this case, that cheap survey cost millions to correct in litigation, time lost and income lost.

When I was growing up in Hialeah, my parents always insisted on my telling the truth. It was pounded into me, sometimes literally. When I was drafted into the Army, telling the truth was a priority because at times, people’s lives could depend on it.

While I was in the Army, I was involved with surveying, and again, being honest and truthful ruled the day. We were told repeatedly, people can die when something is done incorrectly, even a survey.

My approach to surveying and my responsibility of providing leadership to my company have been centered around a philosophy of Ethics in Engineering and Surveying, It is all about ethics and doing what is right. However, in the last few years, and especially since the recession, I have seen countless examples of dishonesty in our industry. Many of the respectable companies in our industry are trying to get rid of the rot, but it’s tough to do. It boils down to policing ourselves. We are doing that. I fired a party chief recently for lying about a job. Many fly by night surveyors have set up shop in our county and they undercut fees of reputable firms just to get the work. In short, there is a lack of integrity out there today like never before.

However, the problem exists on both sides of the street. Clients sometimes are not honest. We had an incident not too long ago, where the client would not pay our invoice. The person who was in charge of projects first said he had paid the invoice. Then, he sent messages to all department heads in the company telling them not to do business with us. This is a client we have had for many years. We set up a meeting with the head of the company and the project manager. When the truth surfaced, we discovered that the manager was working with a small firm and was getting cheap prices. We were paid and the manager got the boot. The way to defeat dishonesty is for us to work together from both sides.

I recently read an interesting article about Conscious Capitalism. It was written by Kim Castle,  and what he had to say was summed up in two paragraphs:
“Business doesn’t have to be all about the bottom line. In fact, highly successful businesses from Wal-Mart to eBay have embraced the notion that business shouldn’t just be all about getting rich. Says Steven Quinn, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Wal-Mart: “In the emerging world of extreme transparency, customers and employees will trust companies that are truly making a difference in their lives. Being good will trump looking good.”

With so many consumers becoming aware of their impact on the environment and on society itself, a business that continues to blunder ahead in blind pursuit of monetary riches risks becoming like the pariahs of Wall Street—seen as greedy, soulless, willing to trample the planet and everyone on it into oblivion so long as the insider few “get theirs.””
Power Play, May 2010 http://blog.brandu.com/insights/a-sure-thing-in-business/

My Public Relations advisor told me never to say I have integrity. I took that as an insult. Almost fired him.  The he explained. He said, “George, integrity is something you have or don’t have. It is bestowed on you by other people as a reward for demonstrating integrity and living within your ethics. It’s the way you lead your life and conduct your business. You have it or you don’t, but you have to let others see it in you to know for sure. This is one case where your actions really do speak louder than words. “

If you look at the last few years, corporate America seems to have lost sight of business ethics. White-collar crime has been rampant. This lack of integrity has spread across America like a plague. It seems as though America has lost its way and that ethics is something one studies only in a seminary. It has pervaded our courts, our governments and has caused a loss of faith in many of our most cherished institutions. 

I am not spelling doom for our way of life, but I do believe the caution flag is waving furiously. We can fix the problem but it takes a lot of people to get involved. We have to be sincere about what we do. I was told years ago to always be sincere, whether you mean it or not. I am talking about real sincerity that is born in your heart and soul.

Here are some things we can do to go face to face against dishonesty in our organizations and our industries. A stand against dishonesty. Or better yet, a stand for honesty in the workplace.

Establish honesty policies that have a zero tolerance for any kind of dishonesty, lying, stealing, cheating, embellishing resumes or promising customers results we cannot guarantee. Harmful pricing and gouging would be part of that, too. Any dishonest act is grounds for termination of employment.

At the same time, we want to make sure our policies are fair and don’t force employees into a situation where they feel it is better to lie than tell the truth.

Create an employee-training program on honesty awareness. Part of the program would be a section of understanding the consequences of dishonesty. Perhaps include an awards program for employees who get caught doing the right thing when they thought no one was looking.

Here is the key element for a program like this. Management has to become the role model.  We have to set the example by operating our
businesses honestly, never bending rules, never over promising things we know we cannot deliver, such as a lure of bonuses or promotions. Above all, we must have equal justice in our day-to-day operations.

A plan like this can backfire if not implemented correctly. We must never use it as a vengeance tool. That creates fear and fear of reprisal, or loss of a job are two of the biggest motivators for lying.  We have to be honest ourselves 100 % of the time.

There is one other area of dishonesty that is more difficult to discover. That is with a company hierarchy operating on less than normal resources. Money is one of the big problems here. When money is tight, we sometimes delay paying some of our vendors, who, for whatever reason, may not be our most popular vendors, yet render loyal and honest service to our companies. That is a form of dishonesty and may go undetected simply because there may be only one person involved with the function of paying bills. But the vendor knows what you are doing and vendors talk to each other.

In all areas of our daily operation, management needs to be involved and acutely aware of guaranteeing an honest company with honest employees doing an honest day’s work every day.

I have had faith in this country all my life. If I lost that faith, I would be as dead as an old beaver hat.  I sincerely believe that we will get our country straight again. It may take some time, but it all starts with one person, you, me, someone else. You can help propel the war on dishonesty. Don’t tolerate it in any form. There are many honest people who would love to work for you. Find them, nurture them and you will have a company of integrity. A company that prides itself on being honest. An ethical company that practices conscious capitalism.