Some Seldom Discussed Issues on Ethics: Part I

16 Dec 2018 12:51 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Don Kennedy, President of The International Engineers Conference on Ethics. 

Early in my career, the regulator of the Engineering profession in my area hosted an afternoon workshop on ethics.  There were about 400 people divided into groups of about 10.  They gave us topics to discuss.  I recall one question was "do Engineers owe a greater ehtical duty to the client or their employer?" In such a setting, people will often tend to say things they think they are supposed to say rather than what they honestly believe.  As it was, about 15 tables came to the conclusion that there was a greater duty toward the client and 25 said employer.  There was considerable debate and it struck me how each table became a tribe that supported their cause. That is, it defies random distribution that all the people at each table would hold similar views that are the opposite of the opposing tables. Each side defended their view. No concensus was reached that day.

For the question asked at the workshop, it struck me as odd that there could be any discussion.  But if you take the perspective that somehow engineers are protectors of the public against the actions of management, you might think that the expected answer is that this would extend to protecting clients against your employer. For people who want to provide the expected answer they will think up reasons to support their quickly reached conclusion.

However, the direct consequence of taking the stand that your loyalty is to outside groups is called acting in conflict of interest.  Conflict of interest is not ethical behavior, especially when you are being paid to act in the best interests of the side you working against. For a simple example, let us say your company is negotiating a contract that has an 80% margin.  The 15 tables are essentially arguing that it is the duty of an engineer to go to the client and tell them your employer could offer a 30% discount and still want the job.  The Kantian view of ethics implies that the correct action is the one that applies universally. 

Even though we can all now (I hope) agree that ethics dictates that an engineer owes loyalty to their employer over customers, I would like to now mention a common occurrence I see from time to time.  If you have ever worked for a large organization, you will know that there are many times you might need contingent workers to provide help over a short time.  One of the easiest ways to meet this demand is to bring in contracted workers from a large Engineering services company.  The service providers are typically leery to send their people into another organization. The transplanted workers will often behave in a way that clearly shows they have shifted their loyalty to their host organization.  A big driver for this behavior is that the worker wants to jump over to be a permanent employee of their host.  It happens very often when we have sent people in only to hear a few months later than the workers sent to the client are now giving notice and joining the client organization.  Twenty years ago, there may have been damage to the professional reputation of the engineer that jumped, but today changing jobs is so ubiquitous that no one can keep track of all the places different people worked or why they left any of their jobs.

The above situation highlights the real life ethical challenges that face engineers.  Most of the discussion on ethics involves illegal activity or issuing designs that cause catastrophic failure.  In a workshop, we can usually reach a consensus of what is ethical and what is not and people agree they would be ethical.  How many of us would not readily accept an increase in pay and stay working in the same office we are now in?  

I have been in situations where I worked for an Engineering service provider and was seconded to a client who in turn seconded me to a competing service provider who in turn seconded me to another client. I recognized many urges to shift loyalties but I managed to remember who was paying me to be there. Being ethical is a personal choice that can create personal dilemmas. It is important for engineers to remember the responsibility they carry and where their loyalties lie.

About the Author: Dr. Don Kennedy has been a regular attendee of the ASEM conference since 1999, with particularly good participation at the informal late evening "discussions" (sometimes making it difficult to get to the morning plenaries). He has spent much of his time working on large construction projects in remote areas, lecturing at a few universities, and is now trying his hand in an unfamiliar role as a director of engineering in R&D. Don Kennedy is the President of The International Engineers Conference on Ethics. 

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