Ethics in the Construction Industry: Why People Break the Rules?

The Psychology Behind An Unethical Behaviour

Stanley Milgram

Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to see if people would blindly obey authority in a situation that all would agree is unethical. Milgram got people to volunteer to be a “teacher” and the “teacher” would be at a control panel that would supposedly administer electrical shocks to a student if the student failed to answer a question correctly (No students actually received any electrical shocks). The “teacher” would be given a small amount of monetary compensation in exchange for showing up. The experiment was done in several different settings: In one setting, the student was in a separate room and the teacher could not hear the student protest against the shocks. In another setting, the teacher had to hold the student’s hand down on a shock plate. The results shocked people. When the student was in a separate room, most “teachers” blindly obeyed the order from the supervisor and the order only consisted of “The experiment must go on.” There were never any physical threats made against the “teacher” nor was the threat of compensation being withheld ever brought up for failing to finish the experiment. The electrical shocks were said to get stronger for each incorrect answer and many of the teachers thought they had administered shocks that could cause death. Milgram did this experiment to try and understand how and why so many Germans under the Nazi regime committed terrifying atrocities. It turns out threats are not actually needed to force people to commit terrible acts even when one knows that act is wrong and will harm others. People will do things when they see a legitimate authority figure.


In the construction industry, workers must follow the orders that come from superiors and if the superiors order subordinates to skimp on materials or workmanship, is it logical to think most workers would disobey orders when his or her job may be on the line? The volunteers in Milgram’s Obedience Studies had nothing to lose, which is very different for the people in the real world who need to make a living and often have a few mouths to feed back at home. Everyone knows the dangers of shoddy construction and how it can cost lives.

It is essential for employees and people in charge of human resource in the construction industry to know about Milgram and his conclusions, and for the workers to know they must speak up if they know or receive unethical orders that may result in undesired consequences. However, workers must understand they must first follow the chain of command in order to report poor construction practices within the company. If that move fails, then most would agree it is acceptable for the employee to blow the whistle on the company.

Solomon Asch

Many people like to say they are individuals and they will always follow the correct path, no matter what the group is doing. Solomon Asch did a study to see if people would truly do what they knew was correct or if they would follow the group. Asch did a study where he would hire several actors and one actual test subject. The true test subject would not know the rest of the subjects were actually hired actors. Asch would show subjects several lines on a card. There may be four lines and one line might be longer than the other. Asch gave the actors instructions on how to answer the questions beforehand and see if the true test subject would give the same answer as the actors. When Asch asked which line was longest, there were several flash cards where it was very obvious one line was longer than the rest. The actors would answer first and the true test subject would answer last. In the cases where the actors gave an incorrect answer, seventy-five percent of the time the test subject would also give the incorrect answer, despite knowing it was wrong. As many people have seen when the stock market goes up or down, people have a herd mentality, or they feel comfortable doing whatever the group is doing, even when they know the consequences of following the group. This is commonly known as ‘peer pressure’.


The effect of conformity in the construction industry is not too difficult to understand. Costs could get too high, projects could run behind schedule, or the workers and managers could get a bonus for finishing ahead of schedule. Poor workmanship can result or lower quality materials may be used. Nearly all people know what the results can be in all of these circumstances, especially those doing the building. Yet when much of the group feels that cutting corners is acceptable, the few who know it is wrong and dangerous often decide to stick with the herd, for fear of being ostracized, or possibly even punished for disagreeing. One expression that can be applied to this situation is “Evil only triumphs when good people do nothing.” It would be no surprise to learn some people who helped build the illegal four floors of Rana Plaza knew what they were doing was wrong and maybe some of them thought about speaking up. They may have feared punishment at the hands of superiors or perhaps they saw their coworkers said nothing, so why should they?

Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo became famous (and infamous) for the prison experiment he did in Stanford University in the early 1970s. He randomly chose students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. They were simply told to play their roles. The reason this experiment became so famous/infamous is due to how well the students adapted to their roles and the experiment traumatized some of the participants. The reason this grew out of hand had to do with the lack of rules for the participants as to what was acceptable and what was not. Many people said this was only applicable to the circumstances of the experiment. Yet a few decades later in Iraq, the Abu Graib prison scandal occurred. Some US soldiers were told to soften up some Iraqi detainees. They were given no guidelines as to what they could do and what they could not do. The commanders originally said it was “a few bad apples in the barrel” that were behind the mess. In truth, it was not what is in the barrel that was bad, it was the barrel itself. When people are put in a situation with no clear guidelines, they tend to get very nasty and the results could become deadly. This is why there are laws.

In the construction industry, there are schedules and deadlines that must be met on projects. If the managers and workers are told to just “meet the deadline and keep costs down,” this is an order that is just asking for trouble. There must be rules as to what the workers should not do in order to meet deadlines.

The situation at the Stanford prison experiment can be compared as to what happens between managers and labor workers: managers with power and authority tend to abuse it while labor suppresses their own rights often subdued under their manager’s command. This kind of behavior is even more common in societies that have a strict sense of seniority (respect to elders and powerful) and authority such as Asian countries or Latin countries where the authority figures are not often questioned.

In the final post we will explore how we can prevent such unethical behaviours…

Authors: Ricardo Bielma / Jason Richards


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