Professional Ethics: An Introduction

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Ethics, Morals and Law.

In order to discuss ethics it is important to first of all state exactly what we mean by the term ethics. Ethics may easily be confused with morals and ethical standards may form the basis of laws, however it is important to differentiate between the three.

Ethics describes the rules of conduct recognised by a particular group (such as a profession or nationality) and adherence to ethical codes can involve external pressure, such as that from peers, employers or professional bodies. Ethics may also change depending upon social context and are dependent upon others for definition.

Morals, however define how things should work according to an individual’s ideas and principles and involve mainly internal pressures. Morals are fairly consistent and are usually only interchangeable when an individual changes belief. Ethics may override certain moral principles where an individual whose morals conflict with a group’s ethical code wishes to be a member of that group.

One obvious example of this is the lawyer whose professional code of ethics dictates that they should defend their client, whom they know to be guilty, to the best of their ability and despite a moral belief that crime should be punished. In simple terms, ethics can be seen as the morals of a culture as opposed to the individual.

It is also important to draw a distinction between law and ethics whenever discussing either. It is all too easy to confuse the two since, broadly speaking, what is often termed legally acceptable to a given society will also be ethically acceptable to the majority of groups forming it. Legality or the law of a society, however, addresses an entire social entity, country or state, whereas ethical standards can be unique to a much smaller group or community. Just because something is legal it isn’t necessarily ethically acceptable. For example, when a crime is committed a witness bears no legal responsibility to intervene but it can be argued that there is a moral or ethical responsibility to intervene or prevent the crime from being committed (assuming, of course, that the witnesses own ethical code is in opposition to the crime being committed).


Institutionally Prescribed Ethics.

Ethical standards are a large part of the construction and engineering industries. They are a means by which descent behaviour can be benchmarked and enforced ensuring that a business is not damaged by the unprofessional behaviour of its employees. It should come as no surprise then, that in order for a professional to achieve membership of most credible professional bodies he or she will have to prove that they are ethically descent, or at least that their own ethical standards and practices align with those of the particular institution.

The most widely recognised, and perhaps most highly regarded, institution within the Quantity Surveying profession, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), holds ethical standards in very high regard. Anyone wishing to become a member must pass a formal test on the RICS’s ethical standards demonstrating knowledge, understanding and commitment to a high standard of professional ethical behaviour.

The intention of the RICS to align the ethical standards of its members to their own is to guide and benchmark behaviours and to ensure that those dealing with an RICS Chartered Surveyor can expect a certain level of professionalism.
There are five standards which the RICS believes adherence to will ensure a high level of professional, ethical behaviour:

    1. Take responsibility
    2. Treat others with respect
    3. Always provide a high standard of service
    4. Act with integrity
    5. Act in a way that promotes trust in the profession

These all-encompassing standards aim to enhance client relationships whilst ensuring professional project delivery. More detail on these can be found on the RICS website.

We don’t have to look much further to recognise similar requirements in other institutes such as the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineering Surveyors (CICES) whose Rules of Professional Conduct (binding to all of its members) aim to ensure that ‘all members observe the highest standards of ethics and professionalism’. Again these prescribe that members must act in a professional manner and not in ‘any manner likely to bring the Institution into disrepute’.

The ethical standards of professional bodies therefore may be perceived to be aimed at upholding the image of the institutions, ensuring best practice and conduct throughout the industry, much as the ethical standards of a business allow distance to be placed between it and the unethical behaviour of an individual.


Poor Ethical Practice

The reporting of poor ethical practice, or whistle-blowing, is actively encouraged in many institutions. There are a number of potential motivating factors in whistle-blowing; a sense of ethical responsibility, to release bad feeling or at the very least to prevent a loss of motivation and keep productivity from suffering, as stated by Kadefors (2005, p.871):

There is a strong preference for fairness in human interaction, so that people who experience unfairness tend to react with anger, resentment and loss of motivation.

Therefore when fairness, or what a company suggests to be fair, is not observed it is in the interest of everyone to report the unfair act before negative feelings are circulated.



We have examined what ethical standards are, who uses them, who they apply to and why they are there.

One might wish to question the value of having written codes of ethics since we might safely assume that the large majority of individuals have sound moral standards he or she lives by, often prescribed by the society of which they are a part, therefore making ethics a core element of their being.

Stated ethical values however can ensure that each individual prescribes to the same values and it can also help give an organisation a positive personality by attributing traits to an otherwise inanimate entity. It can also explicitly impose the responsibility for behaviour upon the individual, rather than with an organisation, allowing the organisation to minimise damage to the business by distancing itself from the behaviour of an individual perceived to have behaved unethically whilst providing a healthy guidance on proper conduct.



Ethics and professional standards, 2014, RICS, [Online] Available from: Link [Accessed 7 May 2014].

Ethics vs Morals, 2014, Diffen, [Online] Available from: Link [Accessed 7 May 2014].

Kadefors, A (2005) Fairness in organizational project relations: norms and strategies. Construction Management and Economics, 23, pp.871-878.

Torrington, D. Hall, L. Taylor, S (2008) Human Resource Management. 7th ed. Pearson Education Limited, Essex.
Institution of Civil Engineers (2005) NEC3 Engineering and Construction Contract. Thomas Telford, London.

Making Whistleblowing Work, 2011, Public Concern at Work. [Online] Available from: Link [Accessed 10 April 2011].

NEC3 (2013) Engineering and Construction Contract. London: Thomas Telford Ltd.

Our ‘Three Trees’ Promise, 2012, Velvet Tissue. [Online] Available from: Link [Accessed 7 May 2014].

Weinstein, B., 2007, If It’s Legal, It’s Ethical??Right?, Bloomberg Businessweek. [Online] Available from: Link [Accessed 7 May 2014].

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Follow Daniel Crompton:

Managing Director at Tier Once Commercial Management

Daniel is a Commercial Manager with an MSc in Commercial Management and Quantity Surveying and several years experience, primarily in Rail and Civil Engineering. A keen advocate of commercial procedure development and implementation and commercial involvement in full project life-cycle from tender to close-out.