white arrow on a blue background
(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

By Tara Hoke


How is ASCE's Code of Ethics enforced?


A code of ethics is the expression of a professional community's goals and standards, something that serves both as a guide for members of the community and as a symbol to the public of the community's commitment to integrity in its professional activities. But when members of the community can violate these standards without consequence, there is a danger that the code will be seen as "mere words," statements that fail to reflect the actual practice of the community's members. As such, it may be argued that a code of conduct can only truly demonstrate a community's ethical standards when its provisions are enforced.

Even before ASCE adopted its first Code of Ethics, in 1914, it recognized the need to take action against members whose conduct violated professional standards to such an extent as to cast the Society in a bad light. ASCE's 1878 constitution authorized the removal of Society members "for cause" by a vote of the Board of Direction after an opportunity for defense, and the first recorded disciplinary action was the requested resignation of a member in 1899.

While early disciplinary actions were handled entirely by the Board of Direction, in 1923 the board assigned the task of investigating ethics complaints to the newly formed Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), a function the committee continues to perform to this day. The original CPC was staffed by sitting members of the board, but in 1968, recognizing the conflict that could arise when CPC members were both recommending and voting on disciplinary sanctions (in essence, serving as both prosecutor and judge), the board voted to change the status of the CPC so that it would no longer be a Board of Direction committee. Today's CPC is staffed by no fewer than four ASCE members, each of whom is a former member of the Board of Direction. The CPC's members are appointed by the board and serve staggered three-year terms.

The process for receiving and administering ethics complaints is set forth in article 3 of ASCE's bylaws and of its rules of policy and procedure. Complaints may be initiated by members and nonmembers alike and are received by a CPC staff liaison at ASCE's headquarters. That person reviews the charge to confirm that it names a current ASCE member and determines the particular canon or canons of the Code of Ethics the complainant believes the member has violated.

The complaint is then forwarded to the CPC, which reviews the charge and determines whether the circumstances (if proven) could constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics. If it finds that the charges could constitute a violation, it assigns a committee member to investigate the case.

The CPC's rules of procedure are designed to ensure that due process is afforded to any member accused of an ethics violation, and the most crucial elements of that "due process" are proper notice of the CPC's activities and an opportunity to present a defense. When the CPC votes to open an investigation, therefore, its staff first sends a letter to the member under investigation advising the person of the charges and inviting him or her to submit a written statement or any other information relevant to the charges.

The CPC member assigned to the case is responsible for collecting the information necessary for the committee to reach a finding on the matter. In addition to the complaint and any written response from the member under investigation, the CPC member may conduct phone or in-person interviews of the parties and witnesses, review records of judicial or other related proceedings, and request any other evidence that might be of relevance to the case. When the CPC member considers his or her investigation to be complete, the findings are presented at a meeting of the full committee.

After a review and discussion of the material from the investigation, the CPC votes on whether it believes the member has violated one or more of the canons of the Code of Ethics and, if so, what form of disciplinary action it will recommend to the Executive Committee. Such actions may include a letter of admonition, suspension, or expulsion, as well as publication of the action in ASCE News with or without the accused member's name. Moreover, the CPC's findings may be reported to state licensing boards or other engineering organizations.

If the CPC votes to recommend disciplinary action, the case is scheduled for a hearing before the Executive Committee. The member is notified of the hearing date and invited to present a defense either in writing or in person. The member may also waive his or her right to a hearing and accept the CPC's recommendations in accordance with ASCE's consent procedure. The hearing is conducted in accordance with article 3 of ASCE's rules of policy and procedure. The CPC chair and the committee member who conducted the investigation present the case before the Executive Committee, and the accused member is given an opportunity to question witnesses, refute the evidence, and present any arguments that may support his or her defense. The member is also entitled to have an attorney present at the hearing.

The Executive Committee, acting as judge and jury, then votes by secret ballot on whether the member has violated the Code of Ethics. If the charge is sustained, the Executive Committee votes on the appropriate disciplinary action. If it votes in favor of suspension or some less severe step, its decision is final. However, if it votes in favor of expulsion, the decision may be enforced only after a vote by the full Board of Direction. The case is referred to the full board for yet another hearing, and final action requires an affirmative vote by three-fourths of all members of the Board of Direction.

A full description of the procedures described here is contained in ASCE's bylaws and rules of policy and procedures.

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

© ASCE, ASCE News, July, 2008