Thought Leader: To Seem is to Be

Ethics: The study of standards of conduct and moral judgment … deals with voluntary human actions on the basis of what is right and wrong, good and bad and what ought to be done or avoided in order that men may live well. –Anon.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote in this space on the subject of professional ethics. My concern then was the recently published International Ethics Standards, by the International Ethics Standards Coalition (IESC), with a nod to the various codes published by our many professional bodies including NSPS and FIG.

Unlike the above introductory definition of ethics that is abstract in the extreme, our professional codes speak directly and succinctly to the practice of surveying and are highly regarded by our members and leave little doubt where our duty lies, in an ethical sense.

Of the various ethical issues addressed by our codes one of the most vexatious is the conflict of interest and, more specifically, the appearance of conflict of interest. A perfect example is being played out right now in our government. Donald Trump was, for many years, involved in a vigorous national and international real estate activity. Now that he is our president he has technically divested himself from those activities but his family continues openly and actively: The president’s son was recently in India promoting a new hotel deal even as the US, India, China, Pakistan are at the center of highly sensitive geo-political activity with potentially critical diplomatic consequences. The son in law has apparently used the White House in his search for financing for one of his projects.

President Trump’s position is that his family’s real estate activities have nothing to do with his diplomatic activities as leader of the free world; and his position as arguably the most powerful world leader has no bearing on the deals being made by his family since he no longer has financial or management position in the family real estate business. But no matter how true that may be there are many Americans who will always believe that the president is in a position of gross conflict of interest–simply because of the appearance of conflict.

Property surveyors understand what it means to be in an apparent conflict of interest. As an example, having re-established a property line between warring neighbors the surveyor for Ms. Brown has a conflict of interest in the eyes of Ms. Green, the hostile neighbor. The surveyor is by definition, an agent for Ms. Brown according to Ms. Green. She will never be convinced of the objectivity of the surveyor who by law and by practice is as responsible to Ms. Green as to his client Ms. Brown. But that is the nature of surveying and our best defense of claims of bias by Ms. Green is the probity and integrity of the professional surveyor.

The appearance of a conflict of interest can raise its ugly head in another situation a surveyor may find herself in. Many surveyors serve their communities on planning commissions and boards of appeal or other positions in which their expertise may be a gift to the community. They may occasionally find themselves in a position of acting on a project whose proponent may have been a client or associate in the past. All the surveyor’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, people will see a conflict of interest merely because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. For some, to seem is to be. This should not discourage public participation for the professional surveyor, but all must be aware of the risk of the perception. This, too, goes with the territory, as Mr. Trump is learning.

About the Author

Robert W Foster, PS, PE

Robert W. Foster, PS, PE, of Hopkinton, MA, is in private practice, offering professional consulting services nationally in arbitration, dispute resolution and litigation involving surveying and civil engineering issues. He is past president of the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG).