Engineering Ethics and a Database of Cases

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Let’s have a quick discussion about engineering ethics: what it is, why it’s important, and a database of ethical case rulings. I think this post might help you if you’re ever in an ethical conflict.

In many places around the world, the title of a professional engineer is closely regulated by professional engineering bodies. Much as you cannot practice medicine without a license, or cannot be a lawyer without passing the bar exam, you cannot do some key engineering activities without a license…or at least close supervision by someone with a license. To get your license, the rules vary from place to place. I know that, annoyingly, all the states of the U.S. and provinces of Canada are different. But normally you need to prove your technical and academic skills through schooling and/or competency exams, build some engineering experience in general, get specific experience in the region you are applying, prove a grasp of legal and ethical concerns, show good character, and reach the age of adulthood.

The ethical rules in each jurisdiction are different, and probably you can get the list for free by contacting your local engineering board. But usually the rules revolve around the same priorities and advise you how you must meet them:

  • Public safety is paramount. The number one concern
  • You only practice engineering, or make statements “as an engineer” about topics you are competent in
  • You respect your employers and clients by keeping confidentiality, acting in good faith, advising them of conflicts of interest, etc.
  • You respect your peers by not unfairly disparaging them or belittling their work and abilities, giving them notice before you check their work so they can advice you of any missing background, etc.
  • You follow the law of the land and only practice with a license

Some people find having to pass a test on the ethics, or following some ethical list, a pain. But it can also be useful: a shield you can use to protect yourself, or to bash others with if necessary. “Sorry sir, I can’t do that, I’m legally bound to follow this code of ethics and doing this action would break it.”

To that end, here is a database of ethical rulings I found. http://www.niee.org/pdd.cfm?pt=NIEE&doc=EthicsCases

Having a case precedent (even if it’s from a different jurisdiction), and combining it with your legal obligation to act in an ethical manner, it can help you convince even the most crazed colleagues that you can’t “let things slide.”

Wondering if an action is ethical? Try a technique called the mirror test:

If I do this, will I be able to look myself in the mirror every day knowing what I’ve done?”

Or, the variant:

If I do this, would I be ashamed or embarrassed if my family/friends/mentors/coworkers/religious leader/court system/media discovered what I had done? Could I explain my actions confidently?

If you have an ethical problem at work, you should always start by getting more information to make sure it actually is an ethical problem. Maybe you just misunderstood and there is no problem at all. However, if you confirm that the problem is real, try to resolve it with the immediate people in a confidential manner. Failing that, go higher in your organization, or to HR for help.

Lastly you can go to some sort of government regulator. If they do not act, you can try to go further and higher (like politicians or the media). Usually you are not legally bound to go beyond the first appeal to an outside regulator or legal body. Although some would argue you are ethically bound to keep fighting until the problem is resolved.

If you’re not sure what to do, try to talk it over with independent people you know you can trust. You can also try contacting your engineering board for independent advice and help (and if necessary, you can get some legal advice if it comes to whistleblowing, the final recourse to stop unethical behavior).

Some people also post questions on forums, like the message boards mentioned in the top 3 sites post. You may find someone posted a similar situation and now you see what people think. But BE CAREFUL if you post a question yourself: don’t post it from work, and don’t leave enough details that the post can be connected to you. Keep in mind that the searches and e-mails you do from work can be traceable.

You should also keep careful records for yourself of unethical behavior and all comments and evidence supporting it, in case you have to come into a major conflict to stop it. Make a journal. Save the e-mails you send out and print hard copies. etc. Be ready if it comes to a legal battle.

Luckily, most of us will never come into any ethical problem that can’t be solved by talking it out.

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