A civil engineering ethics case study to ponder:

“Shortly after obtaining her P.E. license, Sara was assigned to work on a large multi-department project. While Sara was initially excited by the opportunity to take on the exciting new challenge and to work and interact with a group of professionals outside her usual team, her enthusiasm was soon dimmed by one of the senior members of the cross-departmental team. Loud and opinionated, the member dominated much of the dialogue in team meetings, and his particular brand of ‘humor’ seemed to consist mostly of mocking other participants. His most regular target was a foreign-born engineer who was one of the newest members of the firm, and many of his so-called jokes were directed at the junior professional’s accent, educational background, and other personal attributes.

“Offended and embarrassed by her colleague’s behavior, Sara often found herself struggling to deflect the conversation away from his ‘jokes,’ but the junior member seemed to handle everything with a smile. Still, Sara was relieved on everyone’s behalf when the project drew to a close.

“Not long afterward, Sara learned that the junior engineer was leaving for a position in another firm. Sara wished him well, but she privately wondered if his experience on the project team had been a factor in his departure.”

What might Sara have done differently to address the team member’s inappropriate remarks about his team member?

What would you do?

Heady questions, to be sure, but situations that civil engineers must navigate throughout their careers. The case study is one of several featured in a new edition of “Sara’s Story: Guidance on Licensing and Ethical Responsibilities for Civil Engineers,” developed by ASCE’s Committee on Anti-Corruption and Ethical Practices.

“These are examples of real-life ethical dilemmas engineers could be confronted with and how the ASCE Code of Ethics can be a useful tool in addressing and resolving those issues,” said Monte L. Phillips, Ph.D., P.E., F.NSPE, F.NAFE, Dist.M.ASCE, professor emeritus at the University of North Dakota and a member of the Committee on Anti-Corruption and Ethical Practice who played a key role in editing the “Sara’s Story” document.

ASCE updated its Code of Ethics in October 2020 with a streamlined model that divides a civil engineer’s ethical responsibilities into five categories based on stakeholders.

Phillips thinks the new format makes it easier than ever for civil engineers – especially younger engineers and students – to find their professional moral compass. “Sara’s Story” certainly helps put that into real-life scenarios.

The “Sara’s Story” document also emphasizes licensure as a crucial piece of developing professional ethics. The document includes a section outlining specific licensure requirements around the United States and how the process works.

“I made a practice when I was an educator – and my background is 45 years as an engineering educator with a significant amount of time in private practice.” Phillips said. “I used to tell those students in introductory classes before my first lecture that ‘I’m going to tell you this in an offensive way because I want you to remember. You’re a d--- fool if you don’t initiate the process of becoming licensed and take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam while you’re still in school your senior year.’ I would then explain why I felt so strongly about licensure.

“I would also ask students in their senior year for a show of hands if anyone hasn’t taken the F.E. exam. And if there were students, I would talk with them privately and ask them why. If money was an issue, I would tell them I will pay it for you, and you can pay me back when it’s convenient for you. 

“I just think we must be personally very committed to making students aware of the licensing process.”

As for Sara and her offensive colleague? You can check your suggested solution or thoughts against those provided in the “Sara’s Story” document and read on for other real-life case studies.

“Civil engineers, more so than other disciplines, interact directly with the public,” Phillips said. “As such, it’s critically important, I think, for them to be aware of the ethical dilemmas that could develop and be prepared to find ways that these could be resolved.”

Download “Sara’s Story.”