Like Carillion, many construction firms lack an early warning system to alert them of corporate malpractice, cautions Dr Sara Hajikazemi
The collapse of corporate giant Carillion in January 2018 highlights a culture of financial deviance embedded at the heart of the UK construction sector.
New research by London South Bank University (LSBU) shows that, following the collapse of a major financial institution like Carillion, individuals and teams in the wider construction sector, often accommodate, explain away or normalize discrepancies and problems. These become part of a culture which unintentionally reduces awareness of the potential consequences of that deviant behaviour.
“The analysis suggests that ‘normalisation of deviance’ lies not only internally, but also externally, in the wider industry environment in which construction organisations operate.”
Taken together, these factors can result in a company not following codes of practice while failing to anticipate and manage a wide range of potential reputational issues and structural internal crises.
By performing a qualitative analysis on the collapse of construction giant, Carillion, using publicly available documentation including Carillion’s own commercial reports to auditors, Parliamentary reports about Carillion’s activities, and news coverage, LSBU has exposed the most common deviant practices and sources of ‘normalisation of deviance’ embedded in the sector.
The findings suggest that ‘normalisation of deviance’ lies not only internally, but also externally, in the wider industry environment in which construction organisations operate. The results sound an alarm bell and call for structural reform of the construction industry to prevent the negative effects of corporate deviance.
The term ‘Normalisation of deviance’ was first introduced by author Diane Vaughan (1996) in her book ‘The Challenger launch decision’. The concept requires three specifications:
- Human based errors and deviations;
- The deviation occurs repeatedly over time;
- The deviation does not cause an immediate, undesired effect.
The research detected three distinct types of ‘normalisation of deviance’ that existed within Carillion before the corporation’s collapse that could also be prevalent in the wider construction sector:
- Late payment to suppliers;
- Aggressive accounting;
- Auditors failing to identify problems.
These three types of ‘normalisation of deviance’ have been categorised as internal or external, depending on whether they related to the company under observation or its main stakeholders. While in hindsight, these practices could be viewed as unacceptable, their emergence was a gradual process that took place over several years. This pattern of corporate behaviour indicates that ‘normalisation of deviance’ is likely to be embedded in corporate culture and very difficult to detect in the initial stages of its development.
We found that the business characteristics in the construction industry, with its highly competitive and pressurised culture, low profit margins, complex and uncertain undertakings, have all contributed to the emergence of questionable business practices.
Our research shows that ‘normalised deviance’ has always been present in the construction sector.
What is concerning is that, as happened with Carillion, construction companies currently lack an early warning system that could alert them to emerging signs of deviant corporate behaviour and malpractice. This means that the construction industry is still likely to be at risk of falling prey to ‘normalised deviance’ and its damaging consequences in future.’
Dr Sara Hajikazemi is senior lecturer in project management at LSBU’s Business School. She produced the research in collaboration with co-authors from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Nord University in Norway, and the University of Oulu and Tampere University in Finland.