Last month, ASCE sponsored an ethics webinar entitled Ethics: The Road Engineers Must Follow. During the seminar, one participant asked, "Is it ethical for an ASCE member to include the P.E. designation on his or her business card without listing the state or states in which the member is licensed?"
Several provisions of the Code of Ethics deal with truthfulness in an engineer's professional activities. Canon 3 requires objectivity and honesty in public statements, canon 4 deals with fidelity to clients and employers, and canon 6 emphasizes the level of tolerance-zero-that is to be accorded to fraud. On the subject of professional credentials, category (d) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5 states that "engineers shall not falsify or permit misrepresentation of their academic qualifications or experience," and category (f) for that canon has this to say: "Engineers may advertise professional services in a way that does not contain misleading language."
Because a business card can be viewed both as a statement of credentials and as an advertisement for business, the crucial test under ASCE's Code of Ethics is whether the member's use of the P.E. designation on the card is in any way misleading. Under certain circumstances, the use of the P.E. designation on a business card, while truthful in some respects, may give rise to an ethics violation if it creates the false impression that a member is licensed in a state in which he or she is not in fact licensed.
One circumstance under which the use of the P.E. designation on a business card may give rise to an ethics violation occurs when the member's business card is misleading in and of itself. If a business card does not expressly list the engineer's state of licensure, a recipient is likely to look at the address given on the card and assume that the engineer is licensed in that state. Thus an engineer whose business card gives a New York address while the engineer is licensed only in New Jersey may be misrepresenting himself or herself as licensed in New York if he or she distributes the card in New York while seeking to obtain engineering work there.
The second, and perhaps more common, circumstance has to do with the engineer's intent when the business card is distributed. Engineers travel frequently out of state for both professional and personal reasons, and not every use of a business card in such cases constitutes an offer of professional services in another state. If an engineer licensed in Illinois gives his or her business card to an acquaintance in Wisconsin for personal reasons without offering engineering services or with a clear indication that his or her services are available only in Illinois, the P.E. designation on the business card without the state of licensure is unlikely to create a false impression of the engineer's professional credentials. If that same engineer, however, offers a card to a Wisconsin developer in the midst of a discussion about construction projects in Wisconsin, the member's words and his or her failure to specify the state of licensure on the business card may together create the impression that the engineer is representing himself or herself as a person licensed in Wisconsin.
While the focus of this column is on compliance with ASCE's Code of Ethics, it is important to note that this issue has ramifications that are anything but abstract. As with many other professional activities, the question of whether or not a member may use the P.E. designation on a business card without specifying the state of licensure is not just an ethical matter but a question of compliance with state regulations.
The typical state regulation defines a professional engineer as a person certified by the board of that state as qualified to practice engineering. The key words in that definition are "the board of that state," and state boards differ in the extent to which they impose restrictions on the use of the P.E. designation when an engineer lives in one state but is licensed in another. For example, an engineer in Texas who is licensed in another state but whose business card or letterhead gives a Texas address may include the P.E. designation only if the actual state of licensure is given and the engineer makes it clear that he or she is not licensed in Texas, for example, "John Smith, P.E., Oklahoma (not licensed in Texas)."
To avoid inadvertent violations of state regulations, therefore, engineers whose work or other business involves contact with states where they do not hold professional licensure should review the laws of the particular state or contact the state's licensing board for clarification as to whether certain uses of the P.E. designation may expose them to disciplinary action. Of course, the best solution for licensed engineers to take, both from an ethical and from a regulatory standpoint, is to specify their state or states of licensure when using the P.E. designation on business cards or other professional materials.