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Reviewing the Civil Engineer’s Ethical Obligations at Home and Abroad

Apr 1, 2019

In today's professional environment, it is increasingly common for engineers to find themselves moving to new cities, regions, or even countries in search of better opportunities for professional advancement. A significant relocation often requires adapting to a host of unfamiliar social and cultural norms. In light of this, one might question whether the same holds true of professional ethics-whether the ethical principles that govern an engineer's conduct are consistent across the globe, or if they, too, are subject to regional or cultural differences.


Do the codes of conduct for engineers practicing in the United States and abroad reflect a common understanding of an engineer's ethical obligations?


This column will be the first of two to compare the ethical principles codified in ASCE's Code of Ethics with those of its international counterparts. While it would not be possible even in two columns to cover the hundreds of ethical codes adopted by engineering societies around the world, even a small sampling offers insight into the ethical concepts that govern the global practice of engineering.



ASCE's Canon 1 requires that "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." Similarly, the international codes reviewed for this column impose an ethical obligation on their members to protect the public safety, health, and welfare. The code of ethics for the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) notes that engineers must "protect life and the environment and safeguard people," while the Code of Professional Ethics for the Institution of Engineers Rwanda states that an engineer "must at all times in his/her relations with the public, apply his/her skills and experience to the common good and the advancement of human welfare with proper regard for the safety, health, and welfare of the public." As with ASCE's Canon 1, most codes also require that engineers honor this commitment to the public welfare even over other ethical principles. The Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IE Sri Lanka) uses the same "hold paramount" language as in ASCE's Canon 1 and notes that this obligation takes "precedence over [the engineer's] responsibility to the profession, sectoral or private interests, employers, or to other engineers." Meanwhile, the Ethical Principles of the Engineering Profession for the Association of German Engineers (VDI) provides a bulleted list of priorities, noting that in cases of conflict, engineers give priority "to the values of humanity over the dynamics of nature, to issues of human rights over technology implementation and exploitation, to public welfare over private interests, and to safety and security over functionality and profitability of their technical solutions."

While not always directly linked to the engineer's obligation to "safeguard people," most of the international codes also include sustainability among the engineer's ethical duties. Engineers Australia's Guidelines on Professional Conduct, for example, states that engineers "aim to deliver outcomes that do not compromise the ability of future life to enjoy the same or better environment, health, wellbeing, and safety as currently enjoyed." The Rules of Conduct of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers includes perhaps the most striking commitment to the principles of sustainable development, outlining a list of obligations that includes the duties to "minimise the use of non-renewable resources," "balance costs with the best benefit to the environment and to human society," and "promote the concepts of interdependence of ecosystems, maintenance of the diversity of species, resource replacement and recovery, and sustainable development."


ASCE's Canon 2 requires that engineers "perform services only in areas of their competence," and competence is similarly an integral concept in the international codes reviewed for this column. VDI's code states that engineers must "fulfil their tasks as they correspond to their competencies and qualifications," while the Code of Professional Ethics for the College of Civil Engineers of Mexico directs engineers to "accept professional assignments only for problems for which you are prepared and have experience, or expose with opportunity and clarity to the interested counterpart your own limitations in this regard."


As with the preceding principles, the international codes also evidence a general consistency with ASCE Canon 3's requirement that "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner." The Code of Ethics for Corporate Members of the Institution of Engineers India (IE India) states that members "shall maintain utmost honesty and fairness in making statements or giving witness and shall do so on the basis of adequate knowledge," and Mexico's code advises engineers to "take care that your professional determinations and public assertions are based on objective information and data, interpreted to the best of your technical knowledge and professional judgment."

In perhaps the most lyrical reference to the external pressures that may bias an engineer's work, the Code of Conduct for the Pakistan Engineering Council requires that an engineer must "be realistic and honest in all estimates, reports, statements, and testimony and…carry out his professional duties without fear or favor." IE Sri Lanka's code also helpfully clarifies that the requirement of adequate knowledge "does not preclude a considered judgment based intuitively on experience and wide relevant knowledge."


A slightly greater degree of disparity can be found in comparing the international codes to ASCE's Canon 4, which requires engineers to "act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees." In at least one international code, the engineer's duty to clients or employers receives at best a minimal reference; the SAICE code says only that members "discharge their professional responsibilities with integrity." While the Code of Professional Conduct for the United Kingdom's Institution of Civil Engineers includes only a similarly vague reference to "integrity," its interpretive guidelines make clear that this includes the obligations of confidentiality, financial transparency, and overall fidelity to clients and employers.

Conversely, several other codes extend the obligation of "faithful service" not only to employers and clients but also to other parties. The Code of Ethics for the Colombian Society of Engineers directs engineers to "be fair, realistic, and objective in relationships with your clients, employers, colleagues, and subordinates; and act with integrity and impartiality." Similarly, the Code of Ethics for the Japan Society of Civil Engineers requires that engineers "be fair and unbiased in all their interactions with the people, their clients, the organizations for which they work, as well as themselves, faithfully and honestly discharging their duties and avoiding any conflicts of interest."

Interestingly, while it has often been noted in this column that an engineer's obligation to employers or clients may be superseded by a prevailing Canon 1 obligation, some international codes expressly clarify that this duty is secondary to all other ethical considerations. IE Sri Lanka's code states that "engineers shall apply their skills and knowledge in the interest of their employer or client for whom they shall act, in professional matters, as faithful agents or trustees, so far as they do not conflict with the other requirements listed here and the general public interest," while the code of IE India expects that an engineer will "apply his knowledge and expertise in the interest of his employer or the clients…without compromising with other obligations to these Tenets."

Overall, the engineering codes surveyed for this column generally mirror the concepts expressed in Canons 1--4 of the ASCE Code of Ethics. Next month's column will look at the remaining ASCE canons and will highlight a few interesting examples of language that do not have direct corollaries in ASCE's code.

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

©ASCE,  Civil Engineering , April 2019