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April 1, 2005
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Ethics and conflict.



Nine attributes for the surveying engineer were enumerated in an article in the February 2005 Journal of Surveying Engineering published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In "Surveying Vistas from Turkey in the New Millennium," the author, Gaye Kizilsu, listed "Ethical & Courageous" as one of those attributes. Kizilsu used Enemark and Plimmer's definition [1] of ethical and personal behavioral competence as "the possession of appropriate personal and professional values and behaviors and the ability to make sound judgments when confronted with ethical dilemmas in a professional context." A confrontation with ethical dilemmas occasionally requires courage on the part of the professional, and surveyors are confronted with ethical dilemmas more often than we may realize. One of those dilemmas is the ubiquitous conflict of interest, or the even more insidious appearance of conflict of interest. Neither a conflict of interest nor an appearance of a conflict of interest is easy to disprove once an accusation has been made.

We are familiar enough with the conflict of interest dilemma faced by public officials; there are many examples in the news of public figures being accused and convicted of conflicts of interest. Perhaps a most sensitive position is the professional in private practice who also serves in an official position for a local government. To their credit, many surveyors contribute their time and energy to their communities as elected or appointed members of planning commissions, boards of appeals, conservation commissions and so on. For them the conflict will come (sooner or later) when a project appears before their board in which they have had some past connection. The connection need not be professional-a family connection is enough to create a conflict. The issue becomes a dilemma when the connection is distant and obscure. If a project proponent's partner is the surveyor's second cousin twice removed, the professional may honestly believe that he or she has no bias, but is well-advised to make full disclosure of the connection before consideration of the project begins. There may in fact be no bias on the part of the surveyor/board member, but the mere possibility of bias may be enough to create an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Less obvious may be the surveyor's risk of a conflict of interest in her normal private practice. Consider the possibilities:

A surveyor agrees to make a survey for the owner of property whose neighbor just happens to be the surveyor's uncle. A concern arises when the survey seems to favor the neighbor/uncle, at which point the surveyor's client believes the surveyor's judgment was skewed as a result of the family connection. In the ensuing argument between the two warring neighbors the surveyor has lost credibility with her client; she has an obvious appearance of a conflict of interest. The courage required in this example must be exercised at the contracting stage when the surveyor and her client first discuss the work to be done. The surveyor should at least notify the potential client of the family connection, but with any suspicion of a possible dispute over the results of the anticipated survey the prudent surveyor might best withdraw from the project. Such a decision may require courage, especially in a time of scarce work.

Another example involves a surveyor providing services for adjoining housing projects. Project No. 2 will depend upon the completion of some of the roads in project No. 1 for access to utilities. The developer of project No. 1 decides to delay progress on those particular roads in order to delay next-door competition. All may be fair in love and war-and the housing industry-but to the extent that the surveyor is involved in the decision-making process of developer No. 1, he may have a conflict of interest or at least an appearance of a conflict. It may be difficult to convince developer No. 2 that the surveyor is innocent of complicity in the matter; after all, it was the surveyor's office that planned the connection of utilities between the two projects, etc.

A third example is the topographical survey of a site on which an old commercial use had long since been abandoned. At the rear of the property the surveyor finds apparent remnants of an old dump: rims of steel barrels appearing at ground surface; mysterious discoloration on patches of exposed soil; bits and pieces of half-buried debris. The surveyor, working for the current owner of the land parcel, understands that his work is to be used by planners working for a prospective purchaser of the site. The surveyor understands that by defining the unwelcome evidence he is alerting the purchaser to a possible clean-up cost, news that the surveyor's client will not receive happily. So there is the surveyor's dilemma: to make a client angry by introducing uncertainty about the suitability of the property-and its worth-or shirking a social responsibility while assuming a possible liability to the new owner. To whom does the surveyor owe loyalty-the client or the future owner? And isn't the surveyor suddenly in a conflict of interest between the two parties? We might introduce the public interest as a third party in the dilemma, which only makes the conflict more complicated for the surveyor.

I am sure that in this third example any ethical surveyor would meet her professional, ethical and social responsibility of detailing the suspicious evidence. Courage is often required to do the right thing; to deliver bad news to a client is the surveyor's lot in life. In each of these examples the surveyor has found him/herself in a conflict of interest, and not necessarily due to the surveyor's own poor planning or lack of judgment. How one resolves the conflict is a matter of professionalism, integrity and courage.

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