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May 2011

Defining Ethical Behavior

Introduction

An ASCE member serving on the board of trustees of a state university is accused of abusing his position to circumvent admission standards in favor of children with connections in the member’s political circle. The member is well known within the community as the president of a civil engineering firm, and news coverage makes repeated references to his professional background.

A second ASCE member, employed by a county government to monitor environmental compliance on the part of local industries, is arrested for driving an off-road vehicle in a protected wetland. In reporting on the incident, news organizations comment repeatedly on the irony of an environmental engineer willfully damaging a natural habitat.

Still another member, this one serving as the chair of an ASCE younger member group Web project, e-mails a female colleague to request information and uses the term “cute stuff” in addressing her. When the woman objects to the term, the chair sends a series of offensive e-mails about the colleague laced with profanities to a number of his friends in the younger member group.

Finally, a fourth ASCE member is accused of assault by another employee at the latter’s design firm.

In each of these instances, news of the ASCE member’s conduct is brought to the attention of ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). In addressing the cases, the committee members consider the extent to which actions that are not directly connected to the practice of civil engineering come under the purview of ASCE’s Code of Ethics.

Question

Does the Society’s Code of Ethics govern a member’s private activities as well as his or her professional activities? If not, where should the ethical line be drawn?

Discussion

Many of the provisions of the Code of Ethics appear to reflect the notion that the strictures are confined to the practice of civil engineering. For example, category (c) in the guidelines to practice for canon 3 requires members serving as expert witnesses to demonstrate technical competence, honest conviction, and an adequate knowledge of the facts, but these requirements apply only when members express “an engineering opinion.” Other provisions involve areas of conduct that by their very nature are limited to the practice of engineering, for example, canon 2’s requirements for competence in signing or sealing engineering plans.

Conversely, canon 6, which states in part that engineers “shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession,” has long been viewed as a catchall provision applicable to any case in which an unethical act is not in direct violation of the other ethical canons. Given the broad nature of this language, the provision could certainly be applied to private ethical lapses by a member that serve to tarnish the public perception of the engineering profession as a whole.

The members of the CPC have frequently sought to clarify the line between professional and personal conduct. While an engineer who embezzles funds from his or her firm has clearly violated the Code of Ethics, is an engineer who engages in shoplifting guilty of professional misconduct? On the other hand, while an engineer who receives a speeding ticket is unlikely to merit professional discipline, should the Society be prevented from seeking sanctions against a member guilty of a violent crime solely because the crime did not relate to engineering?

By way of comparison, the rules of many state engineering licensure boards allow disciplinary actions against engineers who commit certain acts that are unrelated to the practice of engineering. Section 4733.20 of the Ohio Revised Code, for example, allows the board to suspend, revoke, limit, or refuse to renew the license of any engineer who has been convicted or pled guilty of a “felony or crime of moral turpitude.” The phrase “moral turpitude” is used in legal contexts to imply a gross or malicious violation of moral standards and is generally applied to such crimes as fraud, bribery, perjury, and most violent crimes. Similarly, section 34-11-11 of the Alabama licensure law states that the board “shall revoke the certificate of any licensee or certified intern who has been...convicted of or entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere to any crime under the laws of the United States or any state or territory thereof [that] is a felony, whether related to practice or not.”

While the CPC hopes that the ethical provisions of ASCE’s code will guide engineers in both their professional and personal lives, the committee has generally determined that a member’s activities must have sufficient connection to the engineering profession to warrant disciplinary action. When the actions in question combine professional and personal aspects, the committee has taken a case-by-case approach.

With respect to the cases mentioned here, the CPC noted that circumventing university admission standards and using an off-road vehicle in a prohibited area sparked media coverage that reflected poorly on the members’ professional integrity. Their behavior could thus be viewed as diminishing the “honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.” However, the committee members did not feel that the activities were closely related to the members’ practice of engineering, and so in both cases the committee declined to open an investigation.

In the case of the younger member’s e-mails, the CPC members felt that since the member was acting as a representative of the Society in communicating with the female colleague, his conduct bore a relationship to his professional activities. The committee chose to focus on category (g) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5: “Engineers shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the professional reputation, prospects, practice or employment of another engineer or indiscriminately criticize another’s work.” The committee believed that the e-mails showed a malicious intent to injure a colleague’s professional reputation and that the conduct may have served to discourage the woman from further participation in her professional society. The member was removed from his position on the ASCE project. The CPC found that he had violated the Code of Ethics, and it sent him a letter of admonition.

With respect to the member accused of assault, the committee members felt that the action was closely connected to the engineer’s professional practice because it was committed against another member of the engineering community. The committee opened an investigation to determine whether the member’s conduct had violated canon 6 of the Code of Ethics. Ultimately, however, the allegations against the member were withdrawn, and the CPC accordingly voted to dismiss the case. —Tara Hoke

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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