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Review of Report Makes Inflammatory Criticisms of Report’s Authors

Situation

An engineering firm was hired to prepare a report analyzing the soil at a site in preparation for construction. Once construction was complete, there were problems with the structure, so a second engineering firm was hired to determine the cause of the problems. In a report setting forth its findings, the second firm cited the original report and disputed its conclusions.

The engineers who prepared the first report asserted that the second firm used the report to attack the integrity and competence of their firm. They filed an ethics complaint alleging violations of the guidelines to practice set forth in categories (b) and (e) for canon 3 and category (g) for canon 5.

Category (b) for canon 3 reads as follows: "Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony." Category (e) for that canon says, "Engineers shall be dignified and modest in explaining their work and merit, and will avoid any act tending to promote their own interests at the expense of the integrity, honor, and dignity of the profession."

The guidelines to practice in category (g) for canon 5 are as follows: "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."

Question

Was the preparation of a report analyzing an earlier report by another engineering firm a violation of asce's Code of Ethics?

Decision

No. The Committee on Professional Conduct (cpc) considered all the evidence and determined that the preparation of the report in and of itself did not rise to the level of a violation of asce's Code of Ethics.

In this instance, the second report was prepared at the request of a client who was trying to determine why there was damage to the construction site and which party should bear the costs for repairing the damage. Because the first firm had made an analysis of the situation that proved to be incorrect, the second firm was asked to analyze the earlier report.

The cpc determined that there was no violation of the guidelines to practice in category (b) for canon 3 because there was no indication that the second report was not truthful or objective. Similarly, category (e) for canon 3 was not violated because the second firm was asked to analyze the first firm's report and its findings. Finally, the cpc concluded that category (g) for canon 5 was not violated because there was no evidence that the second report was prepared with malicious intent or with the intent to damage the first firm's reputation.

However, the cpc noted that throughout its report, the second firm used language that could be construed as inflammatory and ad hominem. For example, the engineers termed the first firm's conclusions "nonsense" and stated that "they didn't understand their own data."

Normally, a member is informed that a complaint has been filed against him or her only if the cpc decides to investigate the complaint. However, in this case the cpc decided to tell the members, that is, the engineers who prepared the second report, that a complaint had been filed. The committee informed them that although it had found no ethical violations, they would be well advised in the future to eschew language that could be construed as ad hominem. Instead, they should confine themselves to the data at issue and base their conclusions solely on those data. Failing to do so may give the impression that as engineers they are not conducting themselves with the utmost professionalism.

Members who have an ethics question or who would like to file a complaint with the cpc 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.  

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