November, 2003
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Doing the Right Thing

BILL SUTTON

At an ASHI New England chapter education meeting several years ago, Ken Kruger and I led a discussion on ethics. I was excited. I believe this was the first time our chapter dedicated an entire education meeting to this vital subject.

We not only reviewed the ASHI Code of Ethics in detail, we also touched on morals, principles and professional conduct, discussing in an open forum questions such as the following:   

• Are there ethical absolutes?

• Are ethical matters relative?  

• What other professional practices or prohibitions would you like to include in the ASHI Code of Ethics?

• What steps can be taken to improve ethical behavior in our profession?  
• Should society, not our profession, have the primary responsibility for setting ethical standards?  

• What factors do you think influence a person to make
ethical or unethical decisions?

The decline of ethical behavior

According to a report in the December 1995 issue of Chief Executive Magazine, ethical behavior in American companies is on the decline. The article reports that in a survey of 4,035 workers conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, 56 percent reported lying to supervisors as the major misconduct at their companies. Additional research showed that 55 percent of middle managers don’t believe top executives.

Respondents also complained that they are pressured to support incorrect viewpoints, sign false statements and overlook the wrongdoing of supervisors. The most recent Enron and WorldCom debacles are clear examples of this.

As pointed out in the book “The Power of Ethical Management,” co-authored by Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale, people have made millions illegally and immorally by using insider-trading information. Bank executives have bilked their customers and the taxpayer alike for billions in savings and loan banking scandals throughout the U.S. In government, hardly a day goes by without some public official being involved in a conflict of interest or other questionable ethics practice. In education, cheating scandals among students and “under the table” payments to college athletes have become common place. Obviously, all these people were not “bad”…many of them were so-called “pillars of their communities” or outstanding citizens who were willing to cheat to win. They apparently believed that nice guys finish last.

I disagree. What’s more I believe what Blanchard and Vincent Peale have to say on the subject is worth sharing, especially their straightforward, three-step ethics check.
My personal opinions were influenced by what I read.

I believe people of integrity succeed in business far more frequently than those who operate without ethics. There are few shortcuts in life worth taking, and those who truly succeed usually make it happen through hard work and honest relationships.

The big gray areas

People contend that nowadays there is a big gray area between right and wrong, and they use that gray area as an excuse not to worry about being ethical. After reading “The Power of Ethical Management,” I’ve come to the realization that a lot of the grayness can be taken out of our ethical dilemmas if we take the time to sort out the situation. Let’s examine the gray areas, and discuss a process/exercise to help us reach ethically correct decisions.

A secure sense of self

According to what I read, a person of principle has to be clear-headed and decisive to act in a manner consistent with his values. Many experts agree that ethical behavior is related to self-esteem. They believe people who feel good about themselves have what it takes to withstand outside pressures and to do what is right, rather than what is merely expedient, popular or lucrative.

ASHI embraces the idea that adherence to a strong code of ethics is essential to the Society, to its Membership, and to the validity of home inspection as a profession.

Core values

When confronted with ethical dilemmas, most of us have made decisions based on past experiences; family upbringing, including moral and religious teachings; cultural values; or just gut feelings. These influences and countless other external forces have a significant bearing on our behavior. Yet, whatever the pressures of our environment, the responsibility for doing right or doing wrong is a personal one.

Psychologists say goodness does not necessarily come easily to anyone.  Special effort is required to do what is right. Wrongdoing is not simply a question of being sick or paranoid or from a bad background; the potential to do wrong is in all of us.

Greed and dishonesty are common traits awaiting only the opportune moment to surface whenever moral or ethical slippage occurs. I believe most people know right from wrong, but there are ways to clarify issues. In the future, as you contemplate an ethical dilemma, you might  try the straightforward three-step ethics check recommended in “The Power of Ethical Management.”

A game of three questions

Ask yourself:

• Is my action legal?

• Is it fair and balanced or only in my best interest?
• How will this decision make me feel about myself?

Here’s how I use this process.

Question 1:  Is it legal?

Example: A certain home inspection company had a practice of giving kickbacks and premiums to real estate agents for referrals.

When ASHI questioned the Attorney General, his office said it might be unethical. This resulted in a change in the company’s policy. Now the company suggests that the referring real estate agent donate the incentive/gift to his favorite charity. Is it now legal? Maybe in the AG’s office in terms of civil or criminal law it is, but the practice is a violation of Item 5 of the current ASHI Code of Ethics, and it is in conflict with
ASHI policy.  

If something clearly violates civil or criminal law, there’s no gray area Or if it violates a code you’ve agreed to follow, there shouldn’t be gray area. But if you’re left with uncertainty or have any reason to hesitate about a judgment, continue on to the next question.   

Question 2: Is my decision balanced or only in my best interest?

In other words, is it fair to all concerned in the short and the long term? Does it promote objectivity?  Is my opinion unnecessarily critical of others?

Example: I want to best the competition and build my business.    
 In my opinion, we should refrain from derogatory comments about other professionals, and not try to make ourselves look better at someone else’s expense.

Such behavior is unprofessional and ultimately reflects poorly on one’s own conduct. As they say, “What goes around, comes around”.

Achieving balance in home inspection means avoiding inequities. For example: If you go “easy” on a property and “sugar coat” your inspection in order to maintain your good relationship with your referring agent, you will eventually get what you deserve. You will likely be sued. If you render unnecessarily alarmist opinions in order to spite an agent, you will also get what you deserve. The word quickly ‘gets out’ in the real estate industry.

In either extreme your clients lose, your company loses, the profession loses and you lose. If clients begin to mistrust your judgments and agents don’t respect your opinions, I believe everyone’s business is affected. Conflicts of interest involve the abuse of the trust people have in professionals. One of the primary reasons clients value professionals is they expect professionals to be objective, independent and fair.

Question 3: How will it make me feel about myself?

Everyone contemplating an ethical decision should ask himself this question. This is the clincher.

Will my decision make me proud?  How would I feel if what I’m considering doing was published in the newspaper or the ASHI Reporter, or would I like my family, friends and colleagues to know? These questions get at the “heart” of the issue.

In summary, the first question gets you to look at the existing laws and standards; the balance question activates your sense of fairness and rationality; and the clincher question focuses on your emotions and your own standards of morality, and your professional code of ethics.

Inaction is consent

In my opinion, as professionals and ASHI Members, we have the additional obligations to not look the other way, and to not excuse something by saying, “Everyone does it or allows it, why should I take a stand?” When we avoid confronting an ethical issue, we become accomplices by default. Inaction not only sends a bad message, it’s contrary to our Code of Ethics and professional conduct. Inaction is acquiescence. It is consent. In other words, we are not only responsible for what we do; we are responsible for what we don’t do.

Excuses, excuses

The tendency to avoid accepting personal responsibility is deeply ingrained in human nature. People are so imperfect at figuring out the repercussions of what they do that virtually everything has some unintended consequences. We all want to believe what we’ve done is right. To quote a great Greek Philosopher, Demosthenes, “The easiest thing of all is to deceive oneself; for what a man wishes, he generally believes to be true.” But the fact of the matter is there is no right way to do the wrong thing.

Accountability

Our founding fathers knew that without the influence of good morals and ethical standards there is little personal restraint. Without a belief in ultimate accountability for ones’ personal and professional actions our society and profession are not safe from unwanted government intrusions and restraints. According to George Washington, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to progress and prosperity, morality and sound ethics are indispensable supports and should always be respected and cherished…”

Character is a longstanding habit

Sound ethics is always in our best interest. What’s more, if all our choices in life are easy ones, we don’t build much character.

Having the freedom to choose, and exercising it with integrity and humility actually makes us strong. It’s analogous to building physical strength. Every time we work out, we deal with resistance. If the weights are too light to provide resistance–too easy to lift–we won’t increase our strength. We become what we do. We are the total sum of our actions. Character cannot be counterfeited.

Stay focused

We may lose our focus from time to time; it takes a certain amount of skill and good judgment to recognize apparent or potential conflicts of interest. Private and personal interest can cloud our objectivity. The ethics check questions and our ASHI Code of Ethics can help us to maintain focus, help us to evaluate any action or dilemma and guide us into a pattern of right behavior that will be habit forming.
 
Nevertheless, ethics is more than just obeying rules. It means showing leadership in ways that inspire trust and confidence with our clients, colleagues, the public and our profession. Antoine de St. Exupery, a French author and poet insightfully noted, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“Always do right” Mark Twain used to say, “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do, if he knew he would never be found out.”  

I wish you well in always acting in a way that lets you feel good about yourself. John Wooden (the legendary UCLA basketball coach) said it well, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.”