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January 2011

Comparison of Engineering Society Codes of Conduct

Adopted in 1847, the Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association is intended to guide the professional conduct of all practicing physicians. While professional groups ranging from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons offer codes of conduct tailored to their members’ particular practices, the American Medical Association’s code offers an overarching statement of ethical principles meant to underpin medical practice irrespective of specialization.

Over the years, scholars and educators in the field of engineering ethics have often recommended the formulation of an “umbrella” code of ethics for engineers, one that would outline fundamental principles applying to all engineers, be they civil, mechanical, or other. The American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES), an organization comprising more than a dozen engineering and related professional societies, has discussed proposals for a model code of conduct to supplement its member societies’ individual codes. As yet, however, there has been no formal agreement among engineering societies and professionals on a code of ethics containing provisions applicable to all engineers.

At a recent meeting of the AAES, representatives from ASCE and the National Society of Professional Engineers presented a detailed comparison of the codes of ethics of 11 of the AAES’s member societies or their subsidiaries. The most striking element of this comparison was the degree of similarity among the codes. While varying widely in format, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ simple bullet list to the lengthier “canons and guidelines” format of ASCE’s code, the codes of the various societies exhibit a number of common themes.

It is perhaps not surprising that the two areas of greatest consistency among AAES member codes have to do with competence and objectivity, two areas that, it can be argued, have a pronounced effect on the reputation and integrity of the profession. Each of the society codes requires members to perform services only in their areas of competence, and each requires members to be truthful, objective, and honest in all public reports or statements. Several codes, ASCE’s among them, provide express guidelines for engineers serving as expert witnesses. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, for example, requires that “engineers...serving as expert or technical witnesses...shall express an engineering opinion only when it is founded on their adequate knowledge of the facts in issue, their background of technical competence in the subject matter, and their belief in the accuracy and propriety of their testimony.”

Two ethical issues that are closely related to competence and objectivity, namely, professional merit and conflicts of interest, also figure in all 11 of the AAES member codes that were reviewed. Each of the 11 requires members to be honest and accurate in disclosing their professional qualifications and to build their professional reputations on merit alone. Each society also requires its members to avoid conflicts of interest and to make full disclosure of potential conflicts when they arise. Four AAES societies impose additional restrictions on members in public service. The code of the National Society of Professional Engineers, for example, prohibits members from participating in public decisions having to do with “services solicited or provided by them or their organizations in private or public engineering practice,” and it bars all members from soliciting or accepting contracts “from a governmental body on which a principal or officer of their organization serves as a member.”

Of the six provisions of ASCE’s original Code of Ethics, adopted in 1914, only two remain in the current code, and these appear as well in the codes of the other AAES societies. Nine societies echo ASCE’s position that engineers “shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the professional reputation, prospects, practice or employment of another engineer,” and 10 of the codes affirm the engineer’s obligation to “act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.”

Another common theme in the AAES member codes relates to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. The Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration’s code states that “the first responsibility and highest duty of members shall at all times be the welfare, health, and safety of the community.” Ten AAES society codes contain a similar statement on the engineer’s “paramount obligation” to public welfare, and all 11 require engineers to disclose adverse safety or health consequences arising in connection with their duties.

One of ASCE’s top priorities in recent years has been its sustainability initiative, and this issue has become more prominent in a number of other societies. The American Nuclear Society’s code requires members to “protect the environment, and strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of...professional duties,” and five other AAES societies have joined ASCE in adding protection of the environment and a commitment to sustainability to their codes of ethics.

Although state licensing board codes of conduct apply to all professional engineers within the state, regardless of specialty, a comparison of model rules drawn up by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) with AAES codes of ethics highlights a number of areas in which the types of conduct regulated by the state differ from standards imposed by professional societies. (The NCEES model rules are designed to be used by state boards and have served as the basis for many state codes of conduct.) For example, while 10 AAES societies include some variation on the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ provision that members shall “take care that credit for professional work is given to those to whom credit is properly due,” the NCEES model rule is silent on this issue, and some state boards that have adopted this rule take the position that they do not discipline licensees for such ethical lapses as plagiarism. Other areas in which the NCEES rules are silent pertain to the obligation of members to “uphold and advance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the profession” (addressed by 10 societies) and to enhance their own professional competence as well as that of colleagues and subordinates (9 societies).

It is noteworthy that strictures on bribery, fraud, and corruption—ethical issues that come into sharp focus for ASCE members involved in contract and procurement processes—figure in only eight of the AAES member codes. What is more, only six codes address the ethical ramifications of offering or accepting gratuities, and only four concern themselves with contingency fees. This probably reflects the differing types of financial transactions encountered by engineers in other fields of practice.

While the AAES and other engineering organizations so far have not, as mentioned above, elected to adopt an umbrella code of ethics, it appears that the various societies have taken great strides toward a consensus on a number of issues. Anyone with an interest in reviewing the full comparison of codes presented at the AAES meeting may contact ASCE at the number given below.

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