August, 2008
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Inquiring Minds Want to Know: How Did You Get in Trouble?

DEBORAH LONG

Ethics expert Deborah Long has become a fixture at ASHI's Leadership Training Conference (LTC), confirming ASHI's commitment to ethics training and ethical decision-making skills as key components of leadership and society membership.

This year, in New Orleans on Thursday, Oct. 16, her workshop will focus on how chapter leaders can affect ethical training and behavior in their chapters. The following article from Long’s Web site, www.deborahlong.com, speaks directly to this.


Regulatory agency newsletters — such as this one — remind us that licensees make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, in their dealings with the public. Violations mentioned in these publications range from trust account mismanagement to misrepresentation to fraud and worse. And even though it is a relatively small percentage of professionals who are found guilty of professional misconduct, we know that they represent the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Members of the public often do not want to get involved in the complaint process, perceiving that it might be too cumbersome. Some aggrieved individuals may be unaware that a complaint process exists.

When I discuss the complaint cases mentioned in my state’s real estate licensing newsletter with my students, it’s not uncommon to hear this reaction: “There but for the grace of God....” In other words, these licensed professionals are relieved to see that their names have not yet appeared on those notorious back pages. But they also are expressing the concern that they have committed similar violations to those described in the newsletter. They just haven’t been caught yet. To some extent, those quarterly communiqués from our regulators are an important deterrent to practitioners who need constant reminders that their conduct is being watched.

But there are other factors that keep us from getting in trouble. One of those factors is our own ethical capacity and orientation. While many of our values were instilled in us as children and come from a variety of sources, our capacity to become even more adept at making moral judgment usually grows as we mature and experience marriage, parenthood and other significant life events.

Another factor in keeping us from going astray is professional standards or codes of conducts espoused by the private and public sectors. While a code of ethics doesn’t prevent misconduct, professional guidelines help us recognize the baseline for behavior. Codes of ethics set the minimum level of conduct we will tolerate from one another and help us make judgments about right and wrong. The majority of American companies subscribe to a code of ethics, acknowledging its importance in curbing workplace problems.

Many organizations realize the important of yet another factor in minimizing opportunities for misconduct: internal controls, such as adequate supervision, training of staff and careful review of work. It is particularly important that rules are clearly established and consistently and fairly implemented. And while policy manuals and one-day employee orientation programs are useful in establishing ethical boundaries, they are often not enough to meet the frequent ethical challenges that many professionals face. More and more companies are establishing mentoring programs to help practitioners cope effectively — often one-on-one — with work dilemmas.

Another critical factor in minimizing opportunities for misconduct is peer or team review. Peer auditing of critical cases or issues can be an effective tool in preventing problems or preventing their repetition. Sometimes, peer reviews by an independent group from another organization or from a regulatory body can be helpful as well as motivational.

Another determinant in minimizing misconduct is peer pressure within the organization. When the organization's leadership has clearly articulated the values of the company and more importantly, practices those values, then it is more likely that professionals affiliated with the company will practice them as well. We learn our values and ethics from people who have influence over us:  first from our parents and family; then from our teachers; and later in life, from our employers and leaders. If our leaders are corrupt, we are more likely to lower our expectations and, on occasion, respond by becoming corrupt ourselves. On the other hand, when leaders have high standards, we are more likely to conform to higher standards as well.

The last — but not necessarily the least effective — factor in controlling our conduct is government regulation. Some licensees conduct themselves professionally because they don't want to pay the various penalties outlined by rules and laws. But we also comply with regulation because we believe that a society without rules and laws would be chaotic. So, while we may not particularly like the idea of government regulation and reminders from regulatory agencies that let us know our conduct is being measured, we also recognize the importance of some government control.

As I tell my students preparing to take their state-licensing exam, the last place I ever want to see them is on the back pages of the licensing newsletter as the “poster child of the month” for bad judgment. It is hoped that the combination of their integrity, professional training, company values and leadership, their peers’ influence, and government regulation will provide enough discipline and restraint to keep them from becoming an example to the rest of us of how not to conduct ourselves.


Deborah H. Long is a licensed real estate instructor in North and South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Maine, Alaska and Kentucky. She teaches licensing courses as well as specialty programs on ethics, cultural diversity, brokerage management and Internet research skills for real estate agents, appraisers, surveyors, interior designers and architects, state regulators, engineers and other licensed professionals. Visit her Web site at www.deborahlong.com.