By Tara Hoke
The chair of the planning committee for an ASCE section’s annual awards ceremony submits a request to the section treasurer to fund six gift baskets of chocolate for the spouses of outgoing board members. The work of leading this large and active section is a significant commitment, and it is a long-standing practice for the section to publicly acknowledge those who support their spouses in giving so much time in volunteer service.
However, the section’s female treasurer objects to the practice of giving spouses awards at the ceremony. This year’s outgoing board members are all male — as has often been the case — and she thinks the idea of calling all the wives on stage to accept a gift for “staying home” is outdated and condescending.
When the treasurer expresses her opposition to the practice, the committee chair pushes back, noting that none of the prior recipients had ever complained about the spousal awards. While true, this argument is not especially persuasive to the treasurer, as she feels that most recipients would have accepted the gift graciously regardless of their personal views.
In an effort at compromise, the treasurer suggests purchasing thank-you gifts for the spouses but delivering them privately to the recipients instead of at the event. She receives the following email in response from the chair:
Seriously, fair lady, you need to leave the awards planning to the committee so that you can focus on your other tasks. I know you are a super woman, but even you have your limits.
So you want to hide the baskets and not let the spouses come up with their husbands to receive their baskets. That is taking “now” and “then” to the extreme, or said another way, taking “women’s lib” to the extreme. I know you are not married, but the right guy is out there. Or your mom or sister or dad who influenced your life would be proud to stand by you and receive that award.
My point is this: If you are not getting an award, why should you care if anyone else gets anything? Truthfully, it is none of your business. You want to make the decision for others, just like the kids who didn’t have Halloween costumes at my grandkids’ school parties. Instead of someone getting them costumes or keeping those kids at home, they canceled the whole thing.
You are headed for bigger and better things. Taking my advice seriously and keeping it with you for the future will enable you to be a better leader.
Angered and offended by this email, the treasurer calls ASCE’s ethics hotline to seek guidance. This is far from the first unpleasant interaction she has had with the chair, who regularly bombards her with emails and phone calls in what she feels is an effort to bully her into going along with his decisions.
Worse, because the chair copied several members of the planning committee on his email, she feels that the chair is also aiming to undermine her standing with others in the group. While she intends to address this issue directly with the chair, she wishes to know if it is reasonable to consider his behavior a violation of professional ethics.
Does the chair’s conduct in this matter represent a potential breach of the ASCE Code of Ethics?
As this question was submitted shortly after the adoption of what was then Fundamental Canon 8 of the ASCE Code of Ethics, it represented an early test of what was meant by its language that “Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation without regard to gender or gender identity, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, or family, marital, or economic status.”
Key to the application of Canon 8 in this case were two questions: First, was the chair’s conduct influenced by the treasurer’s personal characteristics? And second, if so, was the purpose or the effect of the conduct to discourage the treasurer’s “equitable participation”?
Regarding the first question, while the chair may well have responded assertively to anyone who challenged his views, his message to the treasurer did suggest an inordinate focus on the treasurer’s personal characteristics, e.g., his references to her as a “fair lady” and “a super woman,” his attention to her marital status, and, albeit less directly, his contrasting of his experience against her youth.
As to the second question, the chair’s seeming purpose in noting his colleague’s age, gender, and marital status was to call into question her fitness to offer an opinion. As this could only serve to diminish the treasurer’s standing with her colleagues or to discourage the treasurer from offering a conflicting viewpoint in the future, it can certainly be said that the chair’s objective was to discourage her equitable participation. For this reason, it is indeed reasonable to conclude that the chair’s behavior may have violated his ethical obligations under Canon 8.
While the preamble to the current code of ethics preserves some of the old Canon 8’s language in its call for members to treat people “in a manner that fosters equitable participation without regard to personal identity,” it is interesting to note that the code itself does not expressly restrict this instruction to behavior based on demographic differences.
Section 1f states: “Engineers treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment,” while section 5d requires members to “promote and exhibit inclusive, equitable, and ethical behavior in all engagements with colleagues.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this new language drew a fair bit of criticism when the draft code was presented for public comment, with some arguing that the new code confused professional ethics with good manners or politeness, or citing the old mantra that respect must be earned. At least one member questioned whether the Society was trying to turn its Committee on Professional Conduct into the “rudeness police.”
Conversely, some expressed concern that the new code diluted the importance of respect for an individual’s personal identity, in that it buried the message of making the profession a welcoming environment for people of different ages, genders, races, etc. under a general prescription to be kind.
Nevertheless, this case illustrates one clear benefit of this new language in that today’s CPC would not be obliged to find conclusive evidence that the unwelcome behavior was sparked by an individual’s protected characteristics. It goes without saying that an individual can be insulting, offensive, or abusive to others without ever drawing a connection to demographic differences.
If the civil engineering profession were to conclude in such cases that the behavior was ethically permissible, then the harms might be just as profound as if the profession tolerated outright racial or other types of animus — loss of credibility with clients and customers, attrition of the best talent away from a perceived toxic workplace culture, and an overall decline in the public perception of civil engineers.
Of course, this is not to say that every intemperate word uttered in the heat of conflict is a case for ethical censure. However, this case and the language of today’s code should serve as an important reminder to engineers that the interests of the workplace, the profession, and society at large are best served when engineers are mindful to preserve a professional demeanor in all professional settings.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 print issue of Civil Engineering as “A Professional Demeanor in All Circumstances.”