The drywall specialty contractor had just filed for bankruptcy so John, the construction project manager for a new university dormitory, was trying to select a replacement. One contractor offered John the chance to go to the next NASCAR race as his guest—all expenses paid. John's company had a policy against accepting gifts of any kind from vendors and sub-contractors. John was sure he could make an objective decision, without favoritism. He also knew that he could keep this gift quiet and that no one would find out about it. “Besides,” John thought, “it's not like one contractor is head and shoulders above any other.”

John's situation is not unusual in the construction industry. Any worker, from the construction owner to the hourly laborer, may face such difficult decisions. Sometimes the alternatives are clearly right versus wrong; other times, it's less clear.

To “take the higher ground” is to select a legal, moral, and ethical course of action. Most people know what is legally right or wrong. Where things get a little gray is when ethics comes in to play.

First a brief definition of ethical behavior, and then we'll review a few guidelines that you can incorporate into your company. Webster's New World Dictionary defines ethical as “conforming to professional standards of conduct.” What, then, are professional standards of conduct?

Professional standards of conduct are based on what is morally acceptable. This could include everything from telling the truth, fulfilling commitments and promises, and treating others as you would like to be treated; in other words. the golden rule.

Some might say that there are many contractors in construction who rarely tell the truth, fulfill commitments and promises, and treat others with respect. It is common to hear general contractors speak of their mistrust of specialty contractors. It is just as common to hear a specialty contractor say he does not trust the general contractor.

Let's first identify what contractors most need to practice; consider this an “acid test” of how you are currently doing business. Then, we will review a few suggestions to make taking the high road more acceptable in your own company.

Good ethics in practice:

  • Make commitments that you can keep.
  • Tell others what they need to know, not what they want to hear.
  • Provide honest appraisal; don't exaggerate the truth.
  • Seek the root causes of problems; quit applying “band-aids.”
  • Keep others informed; don't surprise them.
  • Go to others when you see a mistake; don't wait to be found out.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for agreed-upon policies, procedures, and processes.
  • Maintain an open-door policy to all.
  • Respect others' confidentiality; protect “whistle blowers.”
  • Establish a communication system that will keep people “connected” and satisfied with information updates.

Although this list is not exhaustive, it does point to the areas within any company, project, or relationship that should be followed and respected. Such a list presents an expectation that a firm, or individual, stands for honesty in all areas of a relationship, personal or professional.

To increase the likelihood that you and your people will always choose the high road, you might consider raising the bar:

1. Form an ethics leadership team

This team should represent all areas of your company. It will set direction for ethics, maintaining clear communication with the work force, and educating to paint a clear picture of how the company wants to do business.

2. Raise the ethics bar and make it clear

Construction owner and senior leaders must be very clear about how the company will bid jobs, change work orders, deal with shortfalls, handle poorly performing contractors, pay vendors, schedule workers, and perform the most basic of construction processes. Expectations must be set high, made clear, and then monitored to insure conformance.

3. Discipline offenders

There is no better proof of your firm's intolerance for unethical behavior or decision making than disciplining offenders. This discipline might range from time off without pay to termination. The discipline should “fit the crime,” and affirm that “there is no right way to do the wrong thing.”

Getting started begins with leadership. With projects demanding more details, with customers setting expectations higher than in the past, and with construction schedules more compressed than ever, there are many temptations for construction workers, at all levels, to take the path of least resistance.

Taking the high road demands a long-term commitment to choosing the right options. The good news is that many employees want to be associated with honest companies. Such companies will win out in the end if they always pursue the right course of action, action that reinforces a standard of conduct that others can be proud to embrace.

Remember, good ethics makes for good business!

—Brad Humphrey is president of Pinnacle Development Group, a consulting firm to the construction industry. Brad has been a speaker at the World of Concrete for more than ten years and will be presenting a new seminar at WOC 2006 entitled “Taking the Higher Ground.” For more information contact Brad at