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November 2011

Code Addresses New Ethical Challenges

On September 25, 1976, ASCE’s Board of Direction formally approved a substantive revision of the Society’s Code of Ethics. Not only did this newly amended code significantly alter the language and structure of the ethics provisions; it also reflected a sweeping change in the philosophy underlying ASCE’s ethical strictures and in the role of written guidelines in governing the practice of civil engineering. The development of the 1976 Code of Ethics, whose canons remain largely unchanged in the code as it exists today, is reviewed. 

Background

ASCE’s first Code of Ethics, adopted in 1914, served much like a statement of business etiquette for practicing engineers. The six original provisions of the code, together with four adopted later, focused on conduct relating to competition for professional work and dealt with such issues as advertising language, statements having to do with other engineers or their work, and various types of fee arrangements.

This business focus drew its first challenge in the early 1970s, when ASCE was advised that the U.S. Department of Justice viewed ASCE’s ethics provision against price-based competition as a violation of federal antitrust laws. After ASCE agreed to remove this restriction from its code, the Board of Direction established a task committee to review ethical standards and charged it with evaluating the effectiveness of the code in defining the obligations of the Society’s members. At the same time, ASCE’s Committee on Standards of Practice began its own review of the Code of Ethics and appointed a subcommittee to prepare recommendations for amended language.

Working in collaboration and comparing ASCE’s code with those of similar professional societies, the task committee and the Committee on Standards of Practice defined three major areas of concern. First, they felt the code pertained mostly to the practice of consulting engineering and thus did not capture the full range of professional practice represented in the Society. Second, the code made no mention of the public welfare, which the committee members considered to be the engineer’s primary concern. Finally, the committees disagreed with the code’s “negative approach” in telling members what not to do.

The members of the two committees also felt that the profession as a whole would benefit if the various engineering societies could agree on a common code of conduct. The committees reached out to the ethics committee of the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (ECPD, later renamed the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and today known as ABET), which had just completed a draft of a code and was preparing to present it to the council’s board. The ECPD code contained 3 fundamental principles, 14 canons, and a set of rules of practice for each canon. The ASCE committees saw the ECPD code as providing a solid ethical basis but believed that a shortened version might be more effective. ASCE’s board agreed and directed the subcommittee that the Committee on Standards of Practice had established to continue its work of drafting a revised code.

ASCE’s actions proved to be opportune, for government agencies at both the state and the federal level had stepped up efforts to compel professional societies to remove fee-based restrictions from their codes of conduct. The National Society of Professional Engineers was embroiled in antitrust litigation over its own code of ethics, and it, along with several other societies, expressed an interest in joining ASCE and the ECPD in their endeavor to develop a unified ethics code. In early 1975 the Department of Justice informed ASCE that it intended to bring an antitrust action against the Society for three of its other canons. Later that same year, Arizona’s attorney general advised ASCE’s Arizona Society of Civil Engineers Section that it deemed four of the Society’s ethics provisions to be in violation of state laws against unfair competition.

But more than antitrust liability was at stake. Public confidence in the engineering profession had been rocked by a number of scandals, none more disquieting than the resignation of the country’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, over a grand jury investigation of his involvement in a kickback scheme in connection with an engineering contract. Numerous individuals within the engineering community were clamoring for the Society to respond to this “time of great moral upheaval” with a stronger, more comprehensive code.

In April 1975 ASCE’s Committee on Standards of Practice presented its proposed code to the Board of Direction, which endorsed in principle a code containing seven new canons:

  • Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.
  • Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
  • Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  • Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees and shall avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.
  • Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations.
  • Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of engineers under their supervision.

Having been endorsed by the Board of Direction, the proposed code was distributed to various committees for review, and a comparison of the new and old codes was published in Civil Engineering to solicit comments from the membership at large.

The proposed code received a largely favorable response, but criticism was voiced by ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). In a report to the board it issued in April 1976, the CPC called attention to “several shortcomings” in the proposed code. The report stated that the code and its supplemental guidelines “contain[ed] too many adjectival and adverbial phrases, which are ambiguous, subject to various interpretations, and...difficult to enforce.” It claimed that a number of its current or previous disciplinary cases could not be investigated under the new canons.

The CPC reserved its strongest objection for the sixth of the proposed canons:  Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations. The committee regarded this as “unrealistic and unenforceable.” Noting that the proposed code contained no equivalent to the existing code’s article 9, which prohibited members from acting “in any manner derogatory to the honor, integrity, and dignity of the profession,” the CPC recommended that the sixth proposed canon be replaced with a provision mirroring the language of article 9.

While the board was not swayed by the CPC’s concerns regarding enforceability, it agreed to forward the recommendations with regard to the sixth proposed canon to the Committee on Standards of Practice. In September 1976, when the board gave its final vote of approval to the new code, that canon had been revised to read as follows: “Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.” This canon was amended in 2006 to reflect the Society’s policy of “zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.” One of the principal authors of that amendment was Arthur J. Fox, Jr., Pres.76.ASCE, who by coincidence had been ASCE’s president when the 1976 amendments were approved.

A model code of conduct for engineers grew out of the efforts of ASCE, the ECPD, ABET, and other engineering organizations and is available from the American Association of Engineering Societies. Many of that organization’s member societies have used the model code as the foundation for their own codes of conduct.

Further Reading:  

  • McGinn, J. “Ethics Spun from Fairy Tales.” Engineering Issues: Journal of Professional Activities (now Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice) 103, number 2 (1977): 165–81.
  • “Proposed New Code of Ethics.” Civil Engineering 46, number 2 (1976): 95–202.
  • Runyan, M.W. “Progress Report on Development of a Code of Ethics.” Engineering Issues: Journal of Professional Activities (now Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice) 101, number 2 (1975): 199–213.
  • Salvadori, M.G. “The Code of Ethics of the American Society of Civil Engineers.” Engineering Issues: Journal of Professional Activities (now Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice) 101, number 2 (1975): 215–19.

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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