Building an Ethical Future

EMDC students get a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of company culture and proper business behavior as part of her Ethics in Construction and Engineering course.

Karen Layng challenges students in her Ethics in Construction and Engineering course to understand the daily tasks associated with managing a construction business from a moral perspective. The class, taught in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Executive Management for Design and Construction (EMDC) program, highlights the importance of improving the culture of a company and managing the impact of ethical investigations. These lessons help mold future leaders who will be evaluated by how their company stays in the right.  

Layng has spent more than three decades working in law and is currently the president of M.A.I.T. Co., a consulting firm that focuses on construction, specifically in strategy, ethics, insurance, and compliance investigations and reviews. She uses that background to show students why it is important for professionals looking to get into executive management to study and understand ethics.  

“I have seen long-standing good companies be criminally investigated and individuals charged arising out of the unchecked unethical behavior and wrongdoing of a few bad actors,” said Layng, who also teaches Alternative Dispute Resolution and Due Diligence Considerations for A/E/C Firms in EMDC. “In countless cases, firms will learn of ethical breaches and lapses only well after the irreparable damage has been done and lives have been shattered.  

“I hope through teaching this course to prevent such ethical crises.”

Layng says that her experience, which includes being the first female president of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association, influences why she is so impassioned about the need for ethics training in the construction, engineering, and design fields. Her students explore topics such as the ethics in bidding, working with labor unions, handling government investigations, and the impacts of social media. All of these are issues that Layng herself has confronted, allowing her to provide students with first-hand knowledge they can use in their professional roles.

“It can take decades to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it with an ethical breach,” she said. "This has never been more true than in the current volatile and uncertain social media climate, and executive leaders must be prepared to formulate and, if required, implement a strategic ethics crisis management plan.”

Layng believes the best way for students to learn the importance of ethics is through the study of errors that destroyed reputations for both individuals and businesses. By reviewing case histories, she can highlight right from wrong in a real-life scenario. As a final assignment, students create and share their own strategic ethics crisis management plan for a business to demonstrate how they can reduce risk and mitigate damage to their company’s bottom line, all while staying ethical.

In addition, the course prepares students to spot ethics concerns, hopefully catching issues before they arise. That not only improves enterprise risk management, but also corporate safety. Layng points out that unlike a financial breach of ethics where money damages could suffice, unethical work behavior in the design or construction fields could be putting others at physical risk.

“A person's word must be his or her bond, and in the engineering, construction or design fields, breaching one's ethics by cutting corners can result in injury or death,” Layng said. “Ethical lapses simply cannot be allowed in such firms and zero tolerance must be implemented.”

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