The U.S. is abuzz about ethics. News stories from Bernie Madoff to Michael Jackson’s doctor are keeping water coolers busy nationwide. Where most of us see many gradations of gray between cutting in front of someone in the airport security line and pilfering millions from innocent victims, Dr. Marianne M. Jennings sees one color: red. “We tend to look at people like Madoff and think ‘well, I would never do what they did,” Jennings said. “But the problem is, we only see them at their last step.” She says Madoff didn’t start by stealing millions -- it happened in stages until it finally overpowered him and he got caught. 

Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, explained in her keynote address to open the Construction Industry Institute’s 26th annual conference held this week in Reno, Nev. that today’s greased palm becomes a slippery slope tomorrow that will be a liability for all owners and contractors.
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Dr. Marriane M. Jennings, Arizona State University

 “We don’t ask you to worry about ethics because you’ll feel warm and soft and squishy, we ask you to worry about ethics because it’s a pretty compelling part of economic systems,” she says. “Capitalism and economic systems don’t work without moral underpinnings.”

Jennings showed a list of the world’s most corrupt nations. What else did they have in common? They had no economic growth. “A bribe will help your company temporarily, but you are also sentencing that country to a lack of economic development.”

Her presentation definitely created the most buzz during the first day of the CII conference – attendees were still talking about it hours later. A professor at ASU since 1977, Jennings has written extensively on ethics and the law in numerous books and academic journals.

She cited several examples ranging from high school kids writing answers on their hands before a test to price fixing among contractors bidding on projects in England, to a well-known American developer quoted recently that he practices ‘business bluffing’, where he pads his estimates so much that he’s able to impress customers by delivering below the estimate. Those customers in reality pay millions more than what they should have paid.

That high school student she mentioned? It was her own daughter – and yes, she actually turned her in to her teacher. As she approached the classroom, she saw other students taking a test and realized it was a systemic problem. So many kids were looking at notes on their hands that the teachers looked the other way because ‘everybody does it’. Corporations that use that same excuse for paying bribes, skirting safety regulations, price fixing, participating in pay-to-play or reverse bidding are headed down a dangerous path.

Whether the 420 CII conference attendees –executives from many of the world’s largest owners and contractors – will take her advice to heart, it at least made for especially tidy queue lines at the lunch and dinner buffets. People joked that they weren’t going to cut in line now, not while Jennings was around!

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