A case of understanding a potential professional ethical dilemma and how that can involve meeting obligations to a number of stakeholders with competing interests.
Outline and Background of Case Study
A recently accredited Building Surveyor, working in a small building certification practice, is involved in carrying out progress inspections at critical stages in the construction of a new dwelling. Unbeknown to the Building Surveyor, the processing of the original development application for the dwelling by the local council had generated a significant amount of concern for the owners of nearby properties, primarily in respect of how the height of the building would impact on views from those nearby properties. The local council had considered the objections raised by the owners of nearby properties and determined to approve the development application.
Shortly after the Building Surveyor has inspected and passed the framing of the building, she is contacted by an owner of a property that adjoins the site, alleging that the building is being constructed at a height that is higher than approved. The neighbour demands that the Building Surveyor take action to have the building brought into compliance with the approval.
The Building Surveyor contacts the Builder to discuss the allegation that has been made in respect of the height of the building. The builder advises that he has just received a survey report that identifies that the ridgeline of the dwelling as constructed is 50mm higher than provided for by the original approval. The Builder argues that the extra height has no appreciable additional impact on views from nearby properties, being within construction tolerances and within the range of discretion available to the Building Surveyor.
While engaged by the owner of the new dwelling, the Building Certifier's legislated status is that of a public official, with primary responsibilities to the general public.
The Building Surveyor is faced with deciding whether to:
- Agree that the height variation falls within her range of discretion and is acceptable; or
- Require that the dwelling construction be altered to bring the dwelling into full conformity with the original approval; or
- Advise that the height variation needs to be the subject of an application to the local council to modify the original development approval.
Whichever course of action is chosen, there is likely to be an aggrieved party to the matter, which could have further consequences for the Building Surveyor if they have not exercised their judgement with sufficient competence and professionalism.
Purpose – aims and objectives
The purpose of setting out this example is to highlight the type of dilemmas that face Building Surveyors from time to time. As a public authority, a Building Surveyor needs to be able to apply themselves to such a situation in a way that gives due regard to meeting their obligations under relevant legislation and to also meet the standards of professional conduct required in connection with their accreditation.
The aim is to help students understand that obtaining a clear grasp of the coursework in this unit will put them in a good position to manage circumstances similar to those outlined.
The objective is to provide students with guidance on protective factors to help them build resilience aligned to a circumstance of this nature.
For a young Building Surveyor, the situation may appear to be somewhat confronting, given that an inadequate response may lead to their standard of professional conduct being raised with their accreditation body by an aggrieved party. When a situation such as that described is experienced for the first time, it may be difficult to maintain a professional approach. The following protective factors may help.
- While technical skills are important, it is at least equally important to have a solid underpinning knowledge of governance, ethics and expected standards of professional conduct.
- Work experience and interaction with peers will assist, but care should be taken to critically analyse such experiences to ensure that unsatisfactory attitudes are avoided. Accreditation bodies publish case studies that are based on actual disciplinary actions against accredited persons - consideration of such case studies can be particularly useful in understanding the range of situations that can lead to unsatisfactory professional conduct and how to avoid such conduct. Similarly, court or tribunal judgements relating to such matters can also be a source of guidance.
- In an industry that involves significant personal interaction with people who bring varied personal perspectives, good communication skills are essential. For persons wishing or needing to improve their ability to communicate well in confronting situations, formal training in presentation skills can be particularly useful.
- A lack of experience or knowledge of the types of difficult situations that can arise in professional practice can lead to unsatisfactory responses in some situations.
- Young professionals may lack a suitable mentor or simply not have enough interaction with peers to gain an adequate understanding of how they should conduct themselves. Equally, they may learn from peers whose standard of professionalism is relatively poor.
- A failure to keep up to date with changing industry standards and practices will inevitably generate professional risk.
- When faced with a difficult situation, providing a direct un-researched response while under pressure may not be the best response.
Resilience or coping
- Of the potential decision options mentioned in the case study, arriving at the best option will depend on giving due consideration to all relevant factors in the case and having a good understanding of the limitations on the professional's role in the process.
- While timely communication is important, it may be preferable to take a little time away from a confronting situation to better consider and/or research a response.
- Some Building Surveyors who are confronted with the type of situation described in the case study may seek to obtain advice from the local council. However, this approach may not always generate the desired response. It may be preferable to obtain advice from another professional who is independent of the situation at hand.
- Timely professional communication with all parties involved in the matter is important. While it can be difficult to communicate an outcome that is adverse to a person's personal interest in the matter, it will usually be in your best long term interests to do so.
A particular consequence arising from the case study is the need to adopt a professional approach to decision making while under pressure from people with competing interests, when the professional is accountable to all involved parties.
Geoffrey Douglass, accredited Building Surveyor.
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