by Tom Casey Jr.

Call them what you will: ethics, principles, standards of conduct, morals. Whatever name you choose, they seem to be all too scarce nowadays in our industry. Many professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, have a formal code of ethics that they swear an oath to, and adhere to as an entire group. Unfortunately, due to the fragmented world of contracting and the low barriers to entry, our industry has no such common code of ethics.

Our marketplaces are flooded with unscrupulous, unethical, so-called competitors. The negative ripples of their underhanded actions affect us all. The buying public is free to discriminate against us all because of the actions of some. While this may seem unfair, it is reality.

The image of the “typical” home improvement contractor is potentially so poor that we HVAC contractors get lumped in with all the other construction trades. If a builder is deemed unreliable because he fails to keep commitments, meet deadlines, or provide acceptable quality, then we are generally damned by association. If an electrician fails to get the power wiring completed, who gets the blame because the cooling can’t run? The number of scenarios that could place our professional DNA at the scene of the crime is vast: In addition to builders and electricians, there are architects, decorators, plumbers, masons, roofers, etc. We may be completely innocent in the end, but that doesn’t relieve us from being a suspect initially.

National media has drawn microscopic attention to the incredible potential the public has of being ripped off by these bottom-feeders. The trickle-down affects us all, whether we realize it or not. No matter how ethically, fairly, honorably, and professionally we try to conduct our businesses, the media have legitimized the possibility in the public’s mind that we will rip them off some way, some how.

Who’s to say what’s right or what’s wrong? I, for one, think we should. Who are “we”? “We” are those of us who make up the roughly 20% of contractors in our industry who take the time and spend the money to make our industry better year after year.

We take time from our busy schedules to attend industry conferences such as ACCA meetings, HVAC Comfortech, etc. We use a national trade resource such as NATE to ensure our representatives are the best qualified possible serving our clients. We carefully perform background checks, drug tests, and skill evaluations prior to hiring team members. We take the required time to properly orient new team members with the policies and practices of the company, including ethics.

Every market has at least one low-ball hacker. We all know who they are, and can swap war stories of the unbelievable things they do. Incredibly, many of our suppliers and vendors also know who they are but turn a blind eye to the disservice these “contractors” (I use the term loosely!) ultimately do to the public. This only serves to further propagate the unethical image of the home improvement industry.

These hackers are the same ones that ride our coattails, steal our ideas, undercut our prices, and employ all of our rejects. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but that doesn’t give license to plagiarism, copyright infringement, “creative borrowing” of policy or pricing manuals, and other similar low-rent behavior.

The sad truth is that if these “contractors” would take the time to participate in meetings, seminars, or conferences they would be able to learn collectively from us firsthand. They make the adolescent mistake of assuming we don’t want to share. Nothing could be further from the truth. We understand that there really are no magic beans or silver bullet solutions. We understand that our real strength and competitive advantage isn’t from what we do, but in many cases how or why we do it.

Is it time for our industry to adopt a code of ethics? If we get a consensus about such a code as contractors, could we get the manufacturers and wholesalers to follow suit? We need to start at home in our individual firms. We need to develop, adopt, and publish a written code of conduct and ethics that we share with our customers, employees, and vendors so they know what kind of people we are and there is a difference and a choice.

This may seem daunting, but we can do it the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time. Each of us, one firm at a time, can make a difference. Are you ready to take a bite out of the problem? n

Tom Casey Jr. is general manager of
Climate Engineering, Milford, CT. The company was
Contracting Business magazine’s 2001 Residential Contractor of the Year. Casey can be reached at 203/878-6368, ext. 313.