Report writing (Part 3)

May 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
This column emphasizes responses from readers who agree with me that an engineer should resist making changes to a report, even when a client insists.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

Part 1 of this series (February 2006) described an incident I was involved in regarding the ethics of report writing. Part 2 (April 2006) emphasized comments by readers who primarily disagreed with my views. This column emphasizes responses from readers who agree with me that an engineer should resist making changes to a report, even when a client insists.

One of the most eloquent correspondents wrote, "I agree with your position from an ethical perspective. I believe you were also acting in the most cost effective and efficient manner. … By requesting grammatical changes in your report, the client is unnecessarily increasing the soft costs associated with solving the drainage problem.

Another reader wrote, "In the movie ‘My Fair Lady,' Professor Higgins delivers a delicious monologue … in which he points out that society differentiates people based upon their speech and abilities to communicate. I am afraid that many times the engineering profession is not held in high esteem because so many members do not communicate well. … In my opinion, your sentence was much better than your reviewer's … His/hers was that of a typical enginerd." (sic) Someone else responded, "I refuse to change a perfectly good, simple description to a long drawn-out redundancy of useless words." As the writer implies, neither he nor I are paid by the word.

Another reader said, "Your dilemma is that you were taught ethics in college, as was I [in 1963]. … I support your decision. … I don't think the ‘my generation' (sic) can understand our perspective." And, "We are in the business of communicating solutions to our clients, while always keeping in mind public safety and ethical practice.

… As an industry, it seems we are constantly striving to improve our communication and business skills. Sounds like you got caught in a personnel shift within your client's firm." Plus, "I know that you were 100 percent correct in ‘being stubborn.' … Sometimes public staffs feel like they need to ‘mark up' plans (in this case a report), even when the markup is baseless." One reader complained, "Respected review engineers are few.

Many want to interject their ‘design prowess' and take some credit for ‘showing up' a colleague. The ethical lapse with most reviews is that they try to make themselves look good by making someone else look bad. The more red ink they place on a document, the better they feel." Another said, "It appears that you were being stubborn. Good for you. It can be a great trait. You understood the potential ramifications of your actions and acted in accordance with personal integrity and professionalism and in what you felt was in the client's best interest." I hope that was my intent.

Here's an interesting slant: "Your article reminded me of … when I was working as a structural engineer. … The issue was quite different from yours and totally internal, so that payment for services was not part of the problem. … I was asked to prepare a technical report.

… When it was submitted to my supervisor, I was told to make some changes and reluctantly did so. … However, I then took two actions: I refused to sign the revised report, but instead submitted it to the person who mandated the changes for his signature and his explanation to upper management for why there was a change in authorship.

... I initiated a successful transfer within the same company and stayed there for a long career â€" much longer than my antagonist. The interesting thing is that I can no longer remember the subject of the report, only the politics!" And, "Your story reminds me of a skirmish I had with a government engineer. He took exception to several of my designs. … I jumped through every hoop trying to illuminate my way of thinking to this knucklehead, but to no avail. I did get paid … but in the end I decided my best course of action would have been to recognize my inherent conflict with [the man] up front and remove myself from the project." I end my tirade with some well-reasoned words from one of the 10, or so, readers who seemed neutral on the "stubborn" action I took. He wrote, in part, "How much editorial authority or right [does] the client have to dictate not so much ‘what' you say in your report but ‘how' you say it? Rarely have I seen an agreement between a client and a consultant that spells out that relationship beyond some general requirement for the consultant to produce a draft report to be reviewed by the client and for the consultant to resolve the client's comments in a final report. The question is further complicated when one considers who owns the report once it is complete and what the client plans to do with the final report. If, for example, the intent is to submit the report to some higher authority, such as a city council or state agency, to request approval to implement the recommendations or to secure permits or funding for the work, the client may know from past experience how the report needs to be framed to get the desired outcome. Should the client have the right to suggest language, style, tone, etc. in a report? In my opinion, more often than not, clients expect to have that right in varying degrees.

"The facts presented in your article indicate this was not the first report of this type you had prepared for this client, but something must have caused this instance to be different. My initial reaction is that there was not a common understanding of expectations at the outset of the work. It has been my experience that a lack of common understanding of expectations at the beginning of a project is most often the cause for problems at the end of the project. A conversation with the client early on about the purpose of the report, the level of detail expected or needed in the report, and the review/revision process to be followed could eliminate much of the consternation you felt." In response to my question about being stubborn, he said, in part, "It does seem to me that reasonable people should have been able to reach a compromise that would meet the needs of both parties â€" but it is not clear whether there was an attempt to get to that point or not." Of the more than 55 responses to my February column, about 60 percent of the writers seemed to feel that my actions were reasonable, 30 percent disagreed with what I did, and about 10 percent took the middle ground and were not sure that I was either wrong or right. Nevertheless, as old as I am, I learned something from readers' advice and opinions. For that I am grateful.


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