“If you don’t cheat – you don’t eat.”

I heard those words many years ago from a roofing contractor and they stuck with me like the garlic in my own homemade hommous. The phrase is taken out of context: He was repeating what he had heard from a contractor from another trade, not issuing a statement of policy. Not out of context, however, was the underlying truth that it is difficult and actually takes some work to operate completely “clean” in the contracting business. “Cheating,” on the other hand, is easy.

There are lessons to be learned from the continuing saga of Enron, not just for large multi-national corporations, but for business enterprises of all shapes and sizes. We may have only seen the tip of the iceberg as executives of publicly held companies struggle to explain “irregularities” about how they have been reporting key financial information including their overall indebtedness and the value of various assets.

Even a small contracting firm encounters many opportunities for its “aggressive accounting” practices to veer over the line, including:

reporting payroll and profits to tax authorities and insurance companies

  • Looking the other way when the correction of an unsafe situation will clearly cost you profits

  • Not recommending a proper detail simply to chisel a price, even at the detriment of the owner

  • Moving words around on a contract to make a “creative” specification work in order to come up with the lower price

  • Taking a bad contract knowing it can be padded later with change orders

Unfortunately there are many, many others.

In the roofing industry, most of the investors have their hands firmly in the business. You will not be called on to answer to an angry investor’s group or congressional subcommittee. Just the same, however, it would seem a good time for questions to surface: Am I operating my own business according to all the principals of ethics and morality in which I believe? Do the people who work for me have a clear understanding of what these values are so that they will behave appropriately?

Perhaps in light of recent national and world events, it would be a good time for all of us to re-evaluate our own ethical standards. Include these standards as a part of your mission or vision statement. Claim the ethical high ground and make it known. You may miss a meal here and there, but you will never miss a good night’s sleep.