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In this final installment on the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBoK) blog series, we take a look at professional codes of conduct and ethics. I share an overview of what ethics is, some of the important concepts surrounding ethics, and why ethics is so important to our work as engineers and managers.
What is Ethics?
Ethics relates to the set of values and morals that are accepted as good and desirable by society or an individual. When a person’s behavior or character is deemed good or virtuous, regardless of the pressures put on them to act otherwise, they are regarded as ethical.
Stakeholders and Ethics
Stakeholders are the groups and individuals who may be affected by, directly or indirectly, what an engineering manager or organization does and the decisions they make. A typical organization may have stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, and communities as their stakeholders. Ethical decision-making on the part of engineering managers requires consideration of how decisions will affect all relevant stakeholders.
Ethical theories are useful because they provide a framework for use in decision-making. There are two broad groups of ethical theories considered in the EMBoK: conduct theories and character theories.
Conduct theories are concerned with the actions a person takes and what the underlying motivation is for taking them. These theories range from the altruistic to the self-centered. On one end, a person’s ethics lead them to act in ways that benefit others. On the other end of the spectrum, a person’s ethics can lead them to “look out for number one” and make decisions that benefit themselves at the expense of others.
Character theories, on the other hand, are concerned with a person’s character and virtues. These theories do not suggest explicit ways of acting; rather, they suggest ways of being such that ethical behavior will naturally result. Virtues like courage, honestly, and justice are promoted in these theories.
There is no one process or flow chart to guide an engineering manager towards making ethical decisions. However, there are practical tools and models that can be used to help. For example, the utilitarian model mentioned above could be used to help a manager determine which decision could be made that would result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
With each model, however, there are pitfalls that need to be understood and mitigated. In the utilitarian model, it can be difficult to measure benefits and harms for each stakeholder group, and to rank the order the importance of those groups.
The EMBoK also offers a series of practical questions that engineering managers can ask themselves when faced with ethical decisions. Questions like “What would my mother think of my decision?” are simple, but can be very useful in cutting through the complexity of a given situation and get to the heart of whether a given decision is ethical.
Professional Codes of Conduct
Our profession demands ethical behavior from its members, especially those in management and leadership roles. As a result of recent major scandals in the corporate world, such as the Enron scandal, many have lost faith in the business community. Furthermore, the nature of our work as engineers is such that the public’s well-being is often implicated in the decisions we make. Therefore, maintaining a high ethical standard for ourselves is of critical importance.
One challenge in behaving ethically in any given organization is lack of clarity on what constitutes ethical behavior. To address this, high-performing organizations develop clear, robust codes of conduct and train their staff to understand and apply those codes. Additionally, professional associations like the National Society of Professional Engineers create and promote codes of ethics that have broad applicability in many different industries and situations. Engineering managers and leaders can rely on these codes to help guide them in managing the difficult situations they face in the workplace.
Ethics and ethical decision-making are likely not at the forefront of most engineering managers’ minds in the course of a week. However, it is all but certain that, at some point in your career, you will be faced with an ethical dilemma. Being able to recognize a situation as such, and understanding the tools you have at your disposal for managing that dilemma can go a very long way toward resolving your challenge in an ethical way.
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, ASEP is a recognized expert in engineering management and leadership. His mission is to create a better world through high-performing engineering organizations. You can read more from Pat at the Engineering & Leadership blog.