The subcontractor arrived right on time, with all the materials necessary to start the job — a $12,000 roof. He had a work order. He rang the doorbell. No answer. He rang it again. Again, no answer.

He went around the side of the house to see if anyone was home. No one seemed to be. It occurred to him that he might have the wrong address, so he knocked at the next door neighbor's. He asked if the address was correct, and if so-and-so lived next door.

“Oh,” the neighbor said, “she's home, but she doesn't hear so well.”

He explained that he was there to replace the roof. “Replace the roof?” the neighbor asked.

He showed the neighbor the contract. They looked at the roof.

“You can see for yourself that roof's almost new,” said the neighbor, shaking her head. “She doesn't know who she is half the time. She probably doesn't even remember signing that.”

He rang the bell again. This time the client came to the door. She didn't remember signing anything. He called the office and explained.

The general manager was adamant. “We have a signed contract,” he said. “Get started, or we'll find someone else.”

They found someone else.

It's hard to say who's less ethical, the salesman who got that “contract” or the general manager who insisted the job be installed. It doesn't even really matter. The company, once a fairly large player in a mid-sized Eastern city, is out of business. But not before poisoning the air for everybody else.

Many homeowners dread being taken by fast-talking salespeople and the companies they work for. That's why ethics is neither a pet peeve nor an academic issue in this industry. Have you, as company owner, addressed it? Do you have written policies and procedures — such as immediately terminating any salesperson caught lying — that every employee is aware of?

A written statement of ethics, backed up by enforcement, is a saleable proposition. Write it up, print it out, and put it in your presentation book. It will reassure your customers and make your employees proud of who they work for.

More than anything else, it's the best way to declare your independence from the sleazebags, flim-flammers, and fly-by-night artists who are still out there and going strong.