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By Tara Hoke

A question often heard on the ASCE Ethics hotline is, "Where can I find a copy of the Code of Ethics?" If the code serves as a road map to ethical conduct, it is a road map that can only serve its purpose when it is examined and its contents are understood. While space limitations preclude publishing the code here in its entirety, the following article lists the current code's fundamental canons and summarizes the ethical issues and principles informing them.

In its 1976 retooling of the Code of Ethics, ASCE's Board of Direction revised the nine-canon model, which focused primarily on an engineer's business obligations to clients and employers, to one with seven canons that emphasized service to the profession and to the public at large. The change was signaled by the inclusion of four fundamental principles. Although the seven canons and their guidelines have undergone numerous revisions over the past 32 years, the four principles have remained virtually unchanged since their adoption and currently read as follows:

Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity of the engineering profession by :

  • using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare and the environment;
  • being honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public, their employers, and clients;
  • striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession; and
  • supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines.

The seven canons reflect an attempt to span the potentially infinite range of circumstances in which an engineer's commitment to these fundamental principles may be put to the test. Today these canons read as follows

1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.

Perhaps the most demanding of ASCE's ethical standards is the engineer's duty to "hold paramount" the public's safety and welfare. Under this canon an engineer is expected not only to protect the public in his or her own work but also to take action if he or she has knowledge that any other person's actions may undermine the public welfare, a requirement that may include reporting such actions to a government authority with the power to act on behalf of the public. In 1996 ASCE added the "sustainable development" language to this canon, reflecting its belief that ensuring public welfare also requires consideration of ecological and environmental factors.

2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.

In addition to the more obvious guidelines here, for example, the requirement to take work only when qualified by education or experience to carry out the work, this canon means that an engineer may not seal an engineering plan or document unless that document has been prepared or reviewed under his or her supervisory control. As discussed in this column in the August 2007 issue, this provision is considerably less restrictive than the licensing laws in many U.S. states and jurisdictions, underlining the need for civil engineers to be aware of state codes of conduct as well as those of ASCE.

3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

This canon considers the many ways in which an engineer may share his or her expertise with the public and reflects principles that underlie many other provisions of the code. For example, an engineer may apply his or her technical expertise only when competent to do so (as per canon 2), must indicate when a statement has been paid for by an interested party (much like the conflict disclosures required by canon 4), and may not promote his or her own interests in a manner derogatory to the integrity of the profession (canon 6).

4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.

With its focus on fidelity to employers and clients, canon 4 is in some respects reminiscent of the original, 1914 code. But whereas that code barred an engineer only from "accept[ing] remuneration other than his stated charges for services rendered," the current canon provides a more complete picture of the types of conflicts that can lead an engineer astray. Under today's canon, engineers may not use confidential information in a way that is detrimental to an employer's or client's interests, may not take part in decisions as a public servant for services involving their own private practice, and are obliged to notify their employers before availing themselves of outside employment opportunities or engaging in work that may give rise to a conflict of interest.

5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.

An important point to remember here is that this canon does not restrict competition among engineers per se, only methods by which an engineer may attempt to gain an unfair advantage over his or her competitors. Such unfair practices include bestowing gifts or gratuities to obtain work, falsely portraying one's qualifications and credentials, taking credit for the work of another, and maliciously criticizing the work of another.

6. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.

This canon can be viewed as a catchall for acts that while not expressly proscribed in other canons nevertheless violate the spirit of the code. It promotes transparency and scrupulous control of funds and prohibits engineers from knowingly participating in fraudulent or dishonest practices. This canon also reflects the most recent revision to the code, a 2006 amendment stating that bribes and corruption are not to be tolerated and warning engineers to beware of situations where such practices have broad, even institutionalized, support.

7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

The final canon is unique in that its focus is on professional growth rather than professional conduct. Engineers are encouraged to continue honing their skills, to share their knowledge by, for example, attending conferences and seminars, and to support the development of engineer employees by providing them with an environment that encourages professional growth and licensure.

For readers interested in a more thorough study of ASCE's Code of Ethics, the complete text of the most current version is published each year in the Official Register.

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

© ASCE, ASCE News, April, 2008