A Line in the Sand: Ethical Issues for Onsite Professionals

Professional behavior will always set you apart from the competition that doesn’t play by the rules

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Ethics in the onsite segment of the wastewater industry are, for a variety of reasons, too often a component of the job that is overlooked or set aside. It does not have to be so.

I know of no one who, when starting a task, consciously thinks, “How can I cut corners on this project to make an extra buck or two?” If my assumptions are true, why do we have so many opportunities to read of individuals who have done these things? 

Onsite professionals are in business, usually first and foremost, to earn money to support a family. Love of the job, connection to co-workers, an understanding of the positive impacts of their work beyond the job site, and feelings of contribution, accomplishment and satisfaction come in close behind.  

Customers want economical resolutions to their wastewater management obligations – even when they may not fully understand what it takes to meet them. Some customers are not aware of the regulations and how the legitimately entwined obligations of frugality and compliance are affected. Others do not seek awareness or understanding, they just see problems that they want to go away. 

For onsite system related enterprises, the first conflict point is often found where regulatory compliance increases customers’ costs.   

An installer, pumper and problem solver says, “If you want the job done right, I’m your girl! If you want a Saturday afternoon special you will have to look elsewhere.” To her, doing the job right means that she and all her employees must be in compliance with prevailing regulations and her personal standards for doing the job without cutting corners. A grandmother with 40-plus years in the business, she spends her Saturdays with her family, not out cutting somebody’s corners.

Hardware vendors also face tough decisions. When they recognize that the product they sell is not the right product for the job – yet it is what the customer wants – what do they do? They can educate the customer and miss the sale, or they can make the sale and always wonder how things turned out.

An onsite system technology vendor who has asked to remain unidentified turned down a sale for an installation he expected would fail. In his area, winter installations on sites with high soil moisture have a bad performance track record. “To make the situation more challenging even in the best of times, the install was on flood plain soils. We recognized that was the wrong site for an installation during adverse winter weather conditions. We refused to sell the equipment. We believed that enabling that installation was simply the wrong thing to do.”  

Another onsite entrepreneur who performs a large number of pre-sale real estate inspections every year has lost business because of his commitment to a quality job. Not surprisingly, he never knows what he’ll find on a property where he neither installed nor serviced the system. 

In his state, there are no standards for these inspections and different inspectors respond differently to the same situation. “When I encounter a deteriorated, crumbling D-box, I will pressure wash the distribution laterals or remove the debris. Then I get the necessary permit for the replacement D-box.” He has found that because this response drives up a seller’s costs, some real estate salespersons steer business elsewhere. “On the other hand, I have also encountered agents who, when they learn of a repair that was done without the necessary permit, encouraged their client to ‘walk away,’ and they did.” 

Elsewhere, a pumper discovered a treatment tank that required some relatively minor repairs to restore the components to good operating condition. The landowner expected the work to be done without the requisite permit. “When it became apparent that the owner refused to let me do the repair ‘by the book,’ I walked away.”

Sound, ethical decision-making can have long-term business implications. The vendor has forever lost his former customer to another seller. Some real estate agent relationships have been lost but others were established. 

In every case, choices were made. Making the sale and a profit were not these folks’ first goals. Each chose to do things right, as they perceived it. Sometimes, right means to satisfy a regulation and get that permit; sometimes, it means to follow a course of action that will yield the best outcome for the property owner but not a business relationship.

Installers and pumpers refusing to violate regulations; inspectors, when faced with no regulation, standing by their definition of doing the job right; and vendors willing to miss a sale to avoid years of future problems have something in common. They have drawn or pointed to a line in the sand, understood why it is there and refused to cross it even when others did their best to erase it.

Good, solid and consistent ethical and professional behavior will never sell newspapers but it will set these folks apart from those we too often read about.


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