Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The end of the free lunch?

The construction sector is laying down strict new guidelines for staff and suppliers over what is or isn't acceptable to oil the wheels of industry

'SHOULD I accept a Game Boy type thing that my kids really want as a present from one of my suppliers?' 'Is it okay to take a £50 donation for the drinks fund to let someone 'recycle' valuable construction waste?' 'Is it wrong for my subcontractor to pay for a lap dance when I'm a guest on a night out?' These are real questions posed by three perplexed engineers. When does normal business schmooze cross the vague line between honesty and bribery? It is a real issue and if you get it wrong there are real consequences.

Only last week national builder Rok sacked two staff for accepting inappropriate gifts and payments from subcontractors. Like many organisations the company has a policy on gifts and hospitality, and the employees fell foul of it.

Company policies range from prescriptive statements to nothing at all 'because we all know what's right and wrong'.

Guidance, when it is given, tends to be along the lines of 'no overly lavish gifts', 'only hospitality that is part of normal business life and can be reciprocated', through to the more vague 'appropriate gifts at your own discretion' that must be logged in books or diaries that are occasionally spot checked.

But vagueness may be on its way out. Last week it emerged that Bovis Lend Lease (BLL) has decided that in the interests of business transparency and the company's long-term reputation, a detailed policy would be set out in black and white so everyone - employees and suppliers - would know where they stood.

In brief it states that lunch and dinner, okay; cash, absolutely not; gifts worth over £100 should be refused; and everything must be listed on a central web log (News last week).

This is a move towards, but still nothing like as tough as, the anti-corruption hospitality policies adopted by the public sector that can run to eight pages of close type (Highways Agency) and come with a set of appendices and forms (Network Rail).

These policies are designed to put the fear of God into anyone considering going out for something as simple as a pizza and a glass of water with a supplier.

The subject of fraud risk management - which includes inappropriate gifts and hospitality - should be a big concern for construction businesses, says director of forensic services at PricewaterhouseCoopers Sterl Greenhalgh. 'I sense rms are paying much more attention to these issues, ' he says.

'Previously having a black and white policy was seen as a bit bureaucratic - you could rely on people's common sense.

But they need something more robust now.' If only because employees are increasingly being faced with ever grander offers from suppliers.

A few years ago on an average golf day you could expect to come home with a box of golf balls or, at the outside, a new club. Nowadays, you could be offered a two-week trip to a top resort in Portugal or the Caribbean.

BLL's policy, says Greenhalgh, is not going to stop corrupt people being corrupt. But given the fact that construction gives a huge amount of buying power to middle or lower management out on site, it tells everyone clearly and unequivocally what is acceptable.

'It's very easy to be compromised by the pattern of a free lunch, then free entertainment, then a free trip that was a bit too excessive and you don't want anyone to know about, ' says Greenhalgh. 'Something pleasant can quickly turn to something sinister. A clear policy gives staff a simple way of saying no.' So what of the three engineers in the moral maze? The rst put the toy in the company auction and bid over the odds to buy it back; the second passed the problem to the site agent and suspects that cash changed hands? but it didn't turn up in the drink fund; and the last made his excuses and left.

Or at least that's what he told me.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.