Topic: Business & Commercial

Vampires and Construction

The Construction Management Association of America recently released a survey that it had commissioned on the state of ethics in the construction industry. Several questions leap to mind, including: “What took them so long?” After all, Tony Soprano is in the construction business. If there is another industry outside of politics so widely assumed to be corrupt to the bone, it would be hard to name it. Thus the results of the study, which the CMAA termed “alarming,” shouldn’t come as any surprise. 84% of contactors, subcontractors, owners, architects and construction managers responding to the survey said that they had witnessed or experienced unethical acts in the course of business; 34% said they had experienced unethical acts “many times”; and 61% felt that the industry is “tainted” by unethical acts. When one takes into consideration the fact that a persistent 6% of those surveyed seemed to be unable to recognize an unethical act if it was sitting on their heads, this represented 84% of a possible 94% of construction industry members who had encountered corruption.

Survey participants also indicated that as much as $50,000 of every million dollars in construction project costs were consumed by unethical practices. That should get the industry’s attention, and then again, maybe not. The question to be answered is whether the culture of this industry is so imbedded with corruption that it is incapable of change. Is there in fact such a point when ethical practice is not only endangered in a given profession, but beyond saving? That point may be reached when measures to combat corruption are put in place more as a public relations stunt than with any real desire to reform. Several industries and professions are presently at that pivotal moment between ethical surrender and difficult cultural changes: politics, as the very same activists who championed campaign finance reform now exploit loopholes in the laws they created; Major League Baseball, which waits for a game-threatening steroid scandal to break before it will crack down on pumped-up players; print journalism, which has dismissed a welter of damaging examples of fraudulent stories as a problem of individual miscreants rather than an ethically deluded profession; and the investment industry, which after being thoroughly disgraced in the twelve months past, now shows every sign of lying low, taking the heat, and then slowly settling in to business as usual. On the other side of the fence we have the accounting industry, which is making heroic efforts to remove conflicts of interest from its operations, and the pharmaceuticals, which are starting to train its employees earnestly and hard on ethics.

Now the construction industry (next up: the printing industry, the hotel industry, and the convention industry) has concrete proof of what the rest of us knew some time ago: their industry is riddled with cheats, crooks and con men. Even at this advanced stage, when the “everybody does it” argument is invoked to excuse conduct that is actually illegal, the industry can clean house. The very fact that it commissioned a survey is a good sign, and the fact that the survey was made public is an even better sign. The best sign of all will be if the leadership of the industry shows that it contains a critical mass of individuals with the guts and determination to drag a majority of its members out of the shadows. After all, if 84% have experienced or seen unethical conduct, and 6% thinks that unethical conduct is ethical, what percentage do you think actually engages in unethical conduct? “Everybody does it” might not be that much of an exaggeration. There is a point when an industry becomes like ‘Salem’s Lot, the town in the Steven King horror novel. When enough townspeople turn into vampires, your choice is either to find another town, or learn to hang upside down. There are just so many stakes you can hammer.

The survey is the first step toward reform: recognition. The publication was the second: exposure. But if we don’t see evidence of some very serious self-policing by the construction industry in the near future, the opportunity for reform might be gone for the foreseeable future. It might be a good time, before that point is reached, for the government, media, and public advocacy groups to give the ethical minority in the construction industry some support.

Fighting vampires is nothing compared to fighting institutionalized corruption.

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