Ethics and The Professional Engineer

Ethics and The Professional Engineer

BY JOHN R. SPEED, P.E.

Ethics. It's taken on a rather sacred and hallowed persona, hasn't it? Ethics. We say it with such reverence! Everyone talks about ethics today -- in politics, in business, in religion, in the family. Congress investigates the ethics of campaign finance. Society discusses the ethics of euthanasia, genetic cloning, and income tax preparation. Issues of ethics make for great conversation!

But talk is cheap. As engineers, ethics should be considered a part of every action. More specifically, ethics is the way we act. Do we achieve our goals in a manner that is trustworthy? What is the impact of our actions on others? Do we act based on instinct, or do we act upon that which we know? Do we present our actions to others in an honest and complete manner?

I propose that the most fundamental elements of ethical behavior center around three things: objectivity, honesty and trustworthiness. The rules of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers reflect these critical facets of ethical behavior and our enforcement cases document the failure of engineers to work within them.

Objectivity
Board Rule 131.152 starts with a positive assertion that we must issue statements in an objective and truthful manner. However, as engineers we understand that an objective statement must be premised upon an objective assessment. True objectivity begins with self-assessment. Do we have the skills needed to perform the assignment? Will our judgment be clouded by factors beyond the technical features of the project?

The board and state courts have issued many sanctions in cases where engineers failed to correctly assess their own abilities. The cases are varied. A geotechnical engineer failed to recognize basic structural engineering algorithms in the evaluation of a foundation and issued an incorrect report. An unlicensed graduate engineer took a consulting assignment to design a power supply, assuming that he could perform the job even though he had no direct experience in the area. Other cases involving the practice of engineering where a financial interest interferes with an engineer's judgment may constitute a conflict of interest. In each case, objectivity is crucial to an ethical approach to the problems.

Honesty
Board Rule 131.152 also speaks to the engineer's responsibility to provide information in an honest manner. The most common violations of this obligation are not situations where an engineer makes an untrue statement; rather, the violation occurs because an engineer makes a true statement or statements in a misleading way.

For example, an engineer may certify a structure to be structurally "adequate" so that a renovation permit can be issued, but he fails to note that it would only be adequate under use conditions that could easily be exceeded. An engineer performing a forensic analysis of a failed engineering system may attribute the problem to a particular, predominant cause without providing the court with the full explanation of other, interrelated conditions that could have contributed to the malfunction. The message that is conveyed and received does not tell the whole story.

Trustworthiness
Professional engineers must conduct business honorably so that the public trust and the good faith of engineering clients continues to grow instead of deteriorate. Currently, the engineering marketplace is experiencing a decline in client-engineer trust evidenced by a loss of autonomy and professional control over the engineering product. In a recent ASCE paper, Bill Lawson, P.E., succinctly summarizes the situation.

"Loss of autonomy is a clear indicator that a fundamental fracture has occurred in the professional-client relationship. It is the ill fruit born of the seed of mistrust. It is the material manifestation of society's perception that today's client can no longer totally trust professionals to 'put their client's needs above their own.' Compromised trust is the real culprit of professional decline."

Do you put the needs of your clients -- and the public -- above your own? Do you avoid even the appearance of fraud, negligence and shoddy workmanship? Are you intolerant of fraudulent, negligent, unethical or illegal behavior in our fellow engineers? Trust is a nebulous term with a concrete manifestation. We may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it.

Just like the word "ethics," the words "trustworthiness," "objectivity," and "honesty" sound religiously sacred. Assess yourself and decide how the words translate into action in your engineering practice.

John R. Speed, P.E. is the former Executive Director of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers