A Question Of Ethics

Michael Pallamary, LS

Surveyors often assume roles that go well beyond their technical duties, such as that of employers. In what amounts to a critical commentary on the 1990s, one observes that although there are ample classes on higher mathematics, surveying analysis and engineering, little attention is paid to one of the foundations of our profession’s ethics.

Ernest Hemingway perhaps best describes ethics in Death in the Afternoon. He writes, “I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Webster defines it more practically as, “having to do with ethics of morality; of or conforming to moral standards…conforming to the standards of conduct of a given profession or group.” Although I prefer Hemingway’s romantic description, in practice I test my own sense of ethical conduct by Webster’s.

Training Productive Employees

My exploration of the topic stemmed from a recent series of events that forced me to evaluate my own code of ethics. I recently posted a want ad to replace a departing employee. As most employers will agree, finding competent help is often difficult because of ever-changing technology. Of my last six drafting employees, four were hired out of college. Consequently I have spent considerable time training and educating these people. My last employee took nearly 14 months of training before she was productive enough to generate a reasonable profit, and several more months before she developed into a competent and economically valuable employee.

Recently, I met with her to discuss a salary review and, as a result, awarded her a 10 percent raise. Combined with her other benefits, she assured me she was quite content and looked forward to a long and mutually rewarding career with my firm. One week after that review, this “happy” employee resigned. Dumbfounded, I asked why she was leaving. She replied that she was going to work for another company. When pressed, she said that this company (which I will call “Company X”) had been after her for some time. When I asked if her departure was based upon finances or benefits, she replied that she was leaving because Company X was larger. (I employ five people, while the other firm employs 15.) That was her sole basis for leaving. As it was obvious I could do little to expand my firm to her liking, I simply wished her the best.

I later learned that Company X had hired its last three employees in a similar manner, i.e., by aggressively hiring from other companies. In retrospect, one gets the impression that this maneuver has become a yearly rite with that firm. As soon as a firm trains its employees, they are offered a position with Company X. Given this employee’s recent departure, I have wrestled with the implications of such a policy and, more important, whether the same comports with ethical conduct. Is it proper to pursue another company’s employees aggressively when one is in need of new staff? If so, what is the justification?

Hemingway's Sentiments

When I was confronted with this question, my instincts led me to Hemingway’s sentiments. In other words, how would I feel if I were the one who had taken steps to hire an employee away from another company? For me, this was not a difficult question to answer, as I could not pursue such a course of action. Instead I would have published a series of want ads to attract another employee. I also would have contacted the local technical schools and colleges, since I am again prepared to train students or novice employees in the hope that they would develop into competent workers. Despite the difficulties associated with this task, I believe it to be the proper thing to do. One thing is certain: I would never think of tampering with another company’s employees to fill the position.

In pursuit of Webster’s definition, I contacted several employers for whom I have a great deal of respect. To my delight, they responded positively by pronouncing, clearly, that they too felt the manner in which this employee had been hired away was wrong. We agreed that if an employee were to answer a want ad published in the newspaper, that was the nature of business. Conversely, aggressively pursuing another’s employees was unquestionably inappropriate. It is worth noting that one of these individuals is the principal of a large surveying and engineering firm noted for its exceptional business ethics. He informed me that his firm had recently experienced the same problem; another company had covertly hired several of its key employees away.

After considering the comments I received, I decided that to test my feelings on this subject further, I had an obligation to evaluate the matter from the other company’s perspective. I arrived at the following conclusions: First, they do not have to run a want ad. As a result they will save the minor costs in running the ad, not to mention the expense of reviewing and responding to the responses. Second, they will not have to conduct interviews to evaluate the applicants’ capabilities, since someone else has already done that. There are obvious savings associated with this strategy. Third, they will reap the benefits of another company’s training and, as such, they will enjoy extraordinary savings. Thus, there would appear to be advantages in hiring away another company’s employees.

What Do You Do?

Despite the dividends associated with tampering with another company’s employees, doing so completely divests one of any sense of ethical comportment. In my case, it is not the way I do business. How do you find your employees?

Michael Pallamary is president of Precision Surveying & Mapping in San Diego, California.

Copyright 1995 - 2003 by GITC America, Inc, Inc. Articles cannot be reproduced,
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Reprinted here with permission from Professional Surveyor Magazine,
Jan/Feb 1998, Volume 18 No 1.

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Page updated: February 23, 2005