Integrity and safety are the cornerstones on which firms build their businesses. Unfortunately, for every firm that acknowledges these words as sacred, there is another that feels obligated to utilize them only because that is what their customer base, firm and the general public want to see. Blasted on placards in a conference room or printed on the back of a business card, integrity and safety serve more as space warmers than the indelible truths these words should represent.
There is no shortage of jokes about contractors and ethics. Unfortunately, there are many contractors that view their lack of integrity as simply "playing the game." They don't view its absence as a punchline, but rather as normal operating procedures. Many toe the line—saying that because everybody is doing it, they are allowed to shop numbers, reduce quality and shortcut safety. Breaking the law is fairly black or white, whereas breaches of integrity and moral lapses rarely see a courtroom or a legal brief. Doing what is right when no one is looking is arguably one of the best definitions of integrity. There simply isn't one better for construction, considering all of the shortcuts that can be taken, from paperwork to workmanship and even safety.
Firms often spend an exhaustive amount of time codifying the right set of core values that accurately depict their behaviors today and what they strive to be in the future. In the world of construction, so many words and phrases come to mind—quality, innovation, customer focused and team oriented. In the end, wouldn't integrity be the one word to encompass everything? Adopting a one-word value set might not be the most attractive set of core values, but if it is true, it might be the most definitive list a firm will ever need.
Ask Your People
Being ethical means something different to everyone. For some, integrity means not getting caught in a big corporate scandal like those plastered on the news. For others, integrity is taken literally, and even the slightest whiff of impropriety is viewed as an ethical breach. Who is correct? Ultimately, if you have to spend an inordinate amount of time convincing yourself that something is morally correct, is it really morally correct? One of easiest tests is to ask your team. They are one of the most accurate voices you can find. If the answer is a resounding "no," this does not mean the firm is doomed to live in the seething underbelly of the construction universe. However, the perception of the masses needs to be shifted over time. Unlike safety, which presents a clear image, it is hard to provide equipment and training to promote and reinforce integrity. For most firms, this will require a complete shift in biases relative to integrity.
Rationalization is the enemy of integrity, and just like safety, most people can be internally convinced of a decision. In a defined world of integrity, there is only one answer, "We lost the job because we did the right thing." While on the surface it appears to promote failure, the firm is actually reinforcing a much more important message. It says, "As a firm, we will do the right thing and not compromise our integrity, even if it means delaying projects and losing money."
Ask Yourself if you are Willing to Get the Tattoo
Even if your pain tolerance is low, the question that has to be asked is "Is integrity such a core value that you would be willing to get it tattooed on your body?" Firms are quick to blast it on their website, Facebook page, LinkedIn account, business cards and boardrooms, but that is easy printing. In many cases, this demonstration of propaganda can be met with a certain amount of cynicism.
Whether it is integrity or safety, there is a certain group of the population that will say, "Show me!" Obviously, one could have an integrity tattoo and still fail to be ethical or honest, but there is a high likelihood that someone that is so committed to an indelible marking such as that will not risk a breach. Posters can be edited and postings can be deleted. Ink is forever. Of course, while this tattoo is more of a metaphor to illustrate a leader's commitment, it should provide a certain pause in the decision making when crafting a foundation that, in and of itself, lacks integrity.
Ask Your Suppliers and Customers
The most important test of integrity efficacy is the public. Ask your customers, your supply chain and your subcontractors. Have them grade you thoroughly. Not everyone will be your greatest cheerleader, so a one-off comment about feeling disenfranchised is probably acceptable. However, if the majority finds you guilty of a lack of integrity, no poster or website in the world will convince them otherwise. There are plenty of people who will say, "So what? We are the prime contractor," or, "We run the show—who cares what our supplier thinks?"
The construction industry can be a fickle world. One day you're on top and the next, you're the village idiot. There are more than enough studies that show integrity pays in the long run, but even for the nonbelievers, it just looks silly to advertise something you are not.
The best lesson any firm can teach comes in the form of celebrating the right behaviors. In an industry that often seeks to find things that are wrong or broken, attempt to catch an associate or employee doing something right. Provide the firm evidence of integrity and use these experiences to promote these values internally and externally. Clear examples clarify a vague word in the eyes of the firm and create behavioral guideposts for everyone in the company.
Integrity and ethical behavior is not limited to CEOs and presidents. While many think this is a behavior exclusive to the corner office, project managers, estimators and superintendents wrestle with this dilemma daily.
Taking shortcuts with materials, modifying budgets and looking the other way on safety failings are all subtle yet clear examples of systematic integrity breakdowns. When a process is not followed to the letter of the law, it is a breach of integrity.
For most, the breakdown is directly correlated to the amount of time a manager has every day. Cutting corners becomes a matter of efficiency protocol, rather than a manipulation. Ultimately, firms repairing these breakdowns find themselves in a better long-term position. The longer a firm tolerates the"little white lies," the easier it becomes to overlook the shades of gray.