Jeff discusses the importance of ethics

In past columns, I discussed in depth and detail many of the technical aspects of the estimating process, such as referencing techniques, making mistakes, etc. This month, we’ll take a slight detour away from the technical topics and discuss another important aspect of the estimating process that is near and dear to my heart—ethics and professional practice.

It’s not just a river in Egypt

They say that “character is destiny.” In few other occupations is character—particularly the part of an individual’s character that concerns trustworthiness—so relevant. I touched on this subject briefly in a past column in my “Mistake Making” series last year. Specifically, I discussed the inevitable mistakes that one will make as an estimator and the importance of not going into denial over it and attempting to cover-up the mistake. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the estimating process; they are to be avoided but must be expected. In my mind, how an estimator handles their mistakes is a good “tell”—to borrow a phrase from the game of poker—of that individual estimator’s true nature.

In recent years, estimating has come to be acknowledged as a true profession, much the same way that other professionals are recognized. Nationwide organizations, such as the American Society of Professional Estimators, are dedicated to the advancement and recognition of construction cost estimating and the construction cost estimator as a profession/professional in every sense of the word. Through their Certified Professional Estimator program, estimators of diverse disciplines can qualify and take an examination for certification in their fields of expertise. Many governmental agencies and organizations have come to recognize CPE status as the benchmark of an estimator’s ability. As well, it provides an industry standard that many estimators aspire to.

Construction cost estimating has often been described as a hidden profession. Hidden in the sense that estimators toil away, day in/day out, without many beyond the confines of the construction industry aware of their existence and/or the importance of their work to the design/construction process. Perhaps the secretive nature of the estimating process has contributed to this lack of public awareness. So too has the fact that there are so many disciplines and types of estimators: General construction, subcontractor (trade), service/equipment, vendor/supplier, etc., all play their part in the estimating and construction process.

Be trustworthy and fair

The estimator’s role, whether it be for a large, multi-national corporation or for a small home improvement contractor, is critical to the success or failure of that organization. The bidding process requires estimators to review a bid package under time constraints to determine the probable cost of that project (cost being the estimator’s main concern/function). Atop cost are added points for overhead, profit, negotiations, etc. All this information is confidential and must be held in strict confidence by the estimator. To do otherwise would undermine your company’s chances of being the successful bidder.

If character is destiny, then good character for an estimator can be defined as, “Doing the right thing when nobody is looking.” This means always maintaining confidentiality and keeping your company’s interests at the fore. Be professional and always conduct yourself in a businesslike manner. Once your ability to be trusted by your employer is undermined, it cannot be recovered at any price. It’s a big planet but a small world in the construction industry. Your reputation, like your shadow, will follow you wherever you may go. In my mind, integrity is as important as technical skills—they are complementary and you cannot have one without the other.

I knew a very competent estimator who had a serious character flaw. He could not be trusted any further than he could be thrown into a windstorm. He would intentionally seek to undermine his employer’s bids for his own personal profit. Needless to say, his short-term gains have caused him long-term unemployment.

Perhaps most important of all, settle any grievance had with an employer outside the realm of the estimating/bidding process. It is not ethically or professionally acceptable to “get even” through your work as an estimator. After serving on a jury for five weeks in the early ’90s, I was laid-off by my employer at the time. I left on good terms but to this day, I hold a strong resentment towards him for what I perceived to be his punitive action against me for simply fulfilling my civic duty. It did not matter then or now: I completed my assignments and moved on. For me, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise in that it launched me on my consulting career—I’ve never looked back. Though the temptation to get even may be there, resist it at all costs.

Work out differences or find employment elsewhere. As medical doctors are taught, “cause no harm.”