Ethics and engineering

April 2008 » Columns
Knowing what’s right is not enough to prevent ethical lapses. Not following the law, not abiding by company policy, and not adhering to professional standards is not a lapse in ethical decision-making. It is simply wrong.
Ralph Lassiter

Just as the names Kenneth Lay and Martha Stewart were fading into the recesses of our consciousness, they were replaced by the names Ted Haggert and Larry Craig. If you thought that would be the extent of ethical collapses for a while, add the name Eliot Spitzer to the list of once-respected leaders who have suffered lapses in judgment and ethical decision making.

HDR, INC.

Headquarters: Omaha, Neb.

Number of offices: More than 150

Total number of employees: 6,802

Year firm was established: 1917

Total revenue for last fiscal year: $1.14 billion

None of these national figures were professional engineers, although each is a professional in the general sense. And the concept of "professional" includes the caveat that members of a profession agree to perform their duties in accordance with a defined set of standards. Clearly, having these standards is no guarantee that one will abide by them. The individuals mentioned above are a reminder that doing the right thing for the right reason is not automatic for anyone; however, it is absolutely critical to those in the engineering profession.

In other words, professional engineers must have good ethics. According to Bryan Yingst, "Ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find themselves as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople, mentors, professionals, and so on." He adds, "We all have ethics because we have a conscience that knows right from wrong and we are aware of our behavior. Even if you have poor ethics, it’s still a form of ethics. But more importantly, ethics is not only about right and wrong behavior, it is the preference to choose right over wrong."

This piqued my interest in what an Internet search for engineering ethics would reveal. First, in the June 2002 issue of Engineering, Inc., a Gallup survey rated engineers as second only to clergy in honesty and ethical standards (car salesmen finished last, as they have since 1977).

I also found a call for papers for the National Engineering Business Conference on Sustainability in the Built Environment, to be held October 2008 in Montreal. Most interesting was the request for proposals on a "variety of topics that address management challenges and offer realistic solutions to those challenges for the 21st century A/E/C firm in topical areas including Leadership and Ethics."

Then there is the ACEC online course offered in February 2008 titled, Trends in Business Ethics that Affect Engineers. The promotion asked questions all civil engineers should be able to answer: What, exactly, is ethics? Why do good people sometimes do the wrong thing ethically? What roles do management culture, career, financial, and political pressure play in engineering ethics?

As an instructor of ethics training, I agree that understanding the principles, decision-making strategies, laws, regulations, and standards is absolutely necessary. However, simply knowing what’s right is not enough to prevent ethical lapses. Not following the law, not abiding by company policy, and not adhering to your professional standards is not a lapse in ethical decision-making. It is simply wrong, and no amount of training will prevent such decisions.

Ethical dilemmas do not result from having to choose between what’s right and what’s wrong. They occur when we are faced with two rights. Visit the case studies on National Society of Professional Engineers’ (NSPE) website (www.nspe.org) and you’ll discover that almost all are dilemmas between two rights. For example, one is entitled Code Violations with Safety Implications, where an engineer discovers deficiencies in a building’s structural integrity, but believes it would breach client confidentiality to report them to a third party.

Yes, reporting the deficiencies is absolutely the right thing to do. And yes, it is also right to maintain client confidentiality. However, the two rights are not equal and to make a decision, the engineer must use every resource available to do the right thing, for the right reasons. By the way, if you’re not sure of the correct decision, visit NSPE’s ethics site.

I like to use a traffic signal analogy. Red Light situations are no brainers—just as a red traffic signal means to stop, so do our laws, regulations, and professional standards. If a decision is in violation of either, simply stop.

Ethical dilemmas are like traveling through a yellow light because having competing rights requires caution. You must be careful and look in all directions; others may perceive themselves as having the right of way.

As professionals committed to the public’s well being, civil engineers must practice ethical behavior. To make it easy for you, keep in mind that companies with a strong ethical culture and reputation for integrity are consistently outperforming their competitors. In surveys, consumers have demonstrated a preference for goods and services produced ethically.

Finally, if your epitaph was written, your obituary published, for what event or action would you like to be most remembered after your death?

Ralph B. Lassiter is national director of Training and Organizational Development for HDR, Inc. He has more than 25 years of experience in design, implementation, and evaluation of performance development systems for organizations, their managers, and employees. He can be contacted at ralph.lassiter@hdrinc.com.


Upcoming Events

See All Upcoming Events