By Tara Hoke
An ASCE branch in a populous south central U.S. city has a vibrant and active Younger Member Group. In fulfillment of its goal to support the growth and professional advancement of ASCE members 35 and younger, the group hosts a variety of activities, from leadership training to humanitarian projects, sporting events, and social gatherings. Despite its name, events hosted by the YMG are not restricted to younger members, and many of its activities are well attended by the over-36 crowd.
In recent months, the experience of some female attendees at YMG events has been soured by their encounters with another participant. While not a younger member himself, this participant has been a regular at the YMG’s social gatherings, particularly those involving alcohol, and his behavior at those events has become a source of concern for the YMG leadership.
Less than a year earlier, two young women spoke with the YMG chair about their experience at the group’s recent happy hour at a local restaurant. The women explained that the older participant had introduced himself to them at the event, and they had spent some time talking about their technical interests and potential career paths. As the YMG event came to an end, the member extended an invitation for the women to continue the conversation by joining him at a local bar.
Unfortunately, when the two women declined, citing the lateness of the hour, the member became increasingly persistent. He scoffed at the idea of two young, single women ending their night early, and he promised to cover their drink tab at the next bar. He noted his employment at a large firm in their technical discipline and offered to introduce them to others in his professional network. When the women tried to extricate themselves from the encounter by leaving the restaurant, the member followed them to their cars, attempting even then to change their minds. The women described the experience as “creepy,” and they expressed reluctance to attend a future YMG event if the other member might be in attendance.
When the YMG chair approached the man about the women’s complaint, the member expressed surprise that his behavior could have made the women uncomfortable. He claimed there had been no inappropriate motives behind his invitation at the end of the YMG event, and he offered to apologize for what he characterized as “giving the wrong impression.” The YMG chair reminded the member about the need to behave professionally at Society events, and he warned that the Society would not tolerate additional instances of unwelcome conduct.
At first, the warning seemed to be effective, but the member’s behavior soon draws notice again. Rumors reach the YMG leadership that female attendees are warning others to “watch out” for this member, noting his tendency to corner young women alone or in small groups and to pressure them to share contact information or make plans for future meetups.
The YMG leadership receives a second complaint, this time from an attendee claiming that the member had joined her small group of friends at a large YMG gala. The venue had been loud and the event crowded, and the attendee felt that the member had used those factors as an excuse for his inappropriate contact: He leaned in to the women, was talking too closely to them, and rested his hands on their lower backs or shoulders. This all happened despite what this attendee felt were her group’s obvious attempts to convey that this was unwanted contact.
The YMG chair approaches branch leadership about the women’s concerns, and together, they approach the member to apprise him of the second complaint and inform him that he will no longer be permitted to attend YMG events. In addition, the branch president submits a complaint to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct, which promptly opens a case.
Did the member’s conduct violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?
Although great strides have been made in recent years to bring attention to the problem of workplace harassment, it is clear that office buildings and job sites are not the only places where persons may be targets of harassment or other offensive behavior. One environment in which inappropriate conduct more commonly occurs is during social events held after work or at professional conferences; in these settings, the relaxation of formalities around interactions with colleagues or other professionals may lead some to assume that all standards of conduct have been removed.
It is important to remember, however, that engagement in one’s professional society is a professional activity. Accordingly, ASCE expects the same degree of professionalism in all Society activities that would be expected in a more traditional workplace setting. This broad definition of the professional environment is reflected in ASCE’s ethical code as well; at the time of this case, Fundamental Canon 8 of the Code of Ethics read: “Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation.” Also, guideline b under this canon added that members must “not engage in discrimination or harassment in connection with their professional activities.”
In today’s code, this principle is treated more simply in section 1f, which requires members at all times to “treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment.”
When the CPC contacted the member, he vehemently denied that there had been anything harassing or disrespectful about his behavior. The member claimed he had been a mentor for many years over the course of his career, and he saw his participation in the YMG as merely another opportunity to provide support and guidance to young professionals. He insisted that he had not singled out young women in particular, and he expressed offense at the idea that there had been anything of an offensive or sexual nature in his conduct.
The CPC reached out to the complainant for help with facilitating interviews with witnesses, but in doing so, it encountered an unexpected roadblock: None of the attendees who complained to the YMG was willing to speak with the CPC. The complainant reported back to the CPC that the women were satisfied with the member’s agreement not to attend future YMG events and that they did not wish to pursue the matter further; and while the YMG leaders could report on what they had heard, none of those individuals had directly observed or experienced the alleged inappropriate conduct.
The ethics investigation stalled while the CPC wrestled with how to resolve the matter. On one hand, the CPC was not convinced by the member’s denial of improper motives and felt that he had knowingly overstepped the boundaries of appropriate conduct, despite a clear warning from the YMG leadership about his behavior. On the other hand, the CPC found it troubling to pursue disciplinary action against the apparent wishes of the individuals who were most affected by his conduct.
Ultimately, the member took the decision out of the CPC’s hands when he failed to pay his annual dues and his membership lapsed for nonpayment. When a member’s dues lapse while under an ethics investigation, it is deemed that the member has forfeited his or her membership “with prejudice,” meaning that the member may not subsequently rejoin except with an affirmative two-thirds vote by ASCE’s Executive Committee.
Although a thorough discussion of what constitutes harassing behavior is beyond the scope of this column, in many ways, the legal framework is irrelevant to a discussion of professional ethics. Offense is in the eye of the beholder, and neither a brief conversation at a social event nor a casual friendship at the workplace is enough experience to gauge another person’s boundaries, sensitivities, or personal history. For that reason, it is always the most ethical course to be mindful of ASCE’s stricture to treat others with respect, exhibiting even in social environments the same professional manner as that expected in a formal workplace setting.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Civil Engineering as “Principles of Respect for Peers Apply in Social Settings Too.”