Vantage Point: The Business of Ethics

A 59Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

The recent news about American women now being permitted to serve on the front lines in combat raised some sharp debate in a few of my social circles. As a minority in a male dominated profession, life has not always been fair to me, and I can fully relate to the loss of esteem and of related salary associated with a bulletproof ceiling.

In my own case, one of my early bosses decided it was fair to give raises to married men and ignore single women because those in the first group presumably had more responsibility. I don’t recall anyone asking me about my student loans or how much I was contributing toward my brothers’ college expenses. It took me years to make up the pay differential. And I am not the only one who had to fight for the right to slog through mud and ward off snakes to get the kind of practical field experience needed to qualify to sit for a licensing exam.

That kind of discrimination translates into an inability to rise through the ranks (military or civilian) due to the accident of gender, thereby condemning women to being anchored in ineligibility for greater responsibility and the related increased wages, self- esteem, job satisfaction, and general respect afforded their male counterparts. I’m one of the lucky ones who broke through, but many who didn’t have left surveying as a result.

So–are all employees in your firm treated equally? Are they all offered the same opportunities for challenging work and commensurable pay? We don’t usually think of this as an ethical question, but it is one of the largest. It can create a lifetime of pay differential and (dis)satisfaction.

Other news brings up discussion that is more in line with what we consider ethical problems. In the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, there are pending new rules and pending new elevations to which buildings will need to be designed or raised in order to qualify for the lowest insurance premiums. While on its face this situation seems to have little to do with ethics ("Just do it"), in fact it is questioning and pressure from clients that confront us with the hard line of doing the right thing.

As with other kinds of zoning changes, for flood map changes there is first a notification period, then a waiting period before final adoption and mandate for the new flood zones and base flood elevations (BFEs) become effective. In that interim between first notice and effective date lies a gray period during which there are a variety of approaches to moving ahead with new or in-progress projects.

In Scenario One, a developer has been considering the purchase of a property, and does so after having a surveyor complete an Elevation Certificate to determine the flood zone and BFE of the site. Proposed new maps have been published as preliminary for comments, but they have not yet been adopted. Therefore the surveyor completes his work based on the currently effective maps.

The developer goes ahead with the purchase, and months later finds out that new maps with increased BFEs will become effective momentarily. I don’t have to tell you what the developer does next.

While it may not have been the soundest professional or business approach, did the surveyor behave unethically in failing to advise the client of potential future flood map changes? He completed the form correctly. What he should have done, however, was to advise his client of pending new maps, for which he could not, during the public hearing period, state what the outcome would be in terms of change for the better, change for the worse, or no change at all.

In Scenario Two, a design professional has been working on a new residential high rise, also in an area for which the flood maps are about to change. But as work progresses, the comment and appeal period closes, and FEMA has issued its Letter of Final Elevations, meaning that the six-month period before the maps become effective has already begun. The new maps will place the structure in a higher risk area, meaning that the BFE is about to increase by three feet. Currently the lowest floor is designed to be one foot above the existing BFE, but with the new maps the same lowest floor will be two feet below BFE.

This individual hurries to complete his work and apply for certificates of occupancy before the new maps go into effect. He knows that once permits are issued based on plans presented and approved prior to FEMA’s Letter of Final Determination and Base Flood Elevation notices, the project can be completed according to those plans by grandfather rules. His client is happy that there will be no delay.

But did the designer act ethically? Certainly elevating a structure at least two additional feet to be at BFE (the minimum required by 44 CFR 60.3) is not inexpensive, and will entail additional costs for both design and materials. But the repercussions of his actions are that the insurance for the new building (with its lowest floor about to be two feet below BFE) will be astronomically higher than for a lowest floor just at the same elevation as BFE.

Looking at the Flood Insurance Agent’s Manual, we see a rate when the lowest floor is right at BFE. Using that as a benchmark, we see that for one foot below BFE the cost per $100 of coverage at least doubles; for two feet below the tables merely say, "Submit for rating." You can be sure the price will not be less than what is shown on the tables. It means that the proposed policy must be submitted to the Federal Insurance Administration.

Again, is this an ethical problem for the designer? If he rushed the job through, wanting to collect his fee and not wishing to be the messenger who gets shot for bringing bad news, I’d say yes. If instead he presented the situation to the client, and the client told him to hurry up and finish, then I’d say the client brought it on himself. In this second variation, if I were the designer, I’d have made sure that I had a signed (witnessed) statement of acknowledgement from the client.

Being fully honest and providing full disclosure is often an uncomfortable process, but the outcome can mean protecting your own business and your ethics at the same time.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 59Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE