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Abusive, Offensive Correspondence Leads to Suspension

Feb 1, 2017


ASCE's executive office receives word that a member of the Society has sent a series of abusive and offensive emails to a staff member in the publications department. The member in question, a civil engineer and associate professor working at an international institution, had submitted a paper to one of ASCE's journals, and apparently his frustration over the paper's status had led him to transmit several belligerent and abusive emails to the ASCE staff member managing the review process. 

In his emails the author accuses the staff member of being "ignorant, dishonest, and lazy," deriding what he deems "pathetic excuses" for his paper's lack of progress through the review process. Moreover, noting that the employee's name marked her as "clearly of Latin American origin," the author accuses her of being "unable to demonstrate even basic communication skills" and admonishes her to "find a job where the ability to communicate in English was not required." 

When the employee's supervisor attempts to intercede, the member asserts that the Society's practice of putting "affirmative action employees" in customer service positions is the equivalent of placing "square pegs in round holes," and he demands to know the supervisor's national origin and the origins of other members of the department so that he "knew who to contact" the next time he needed information about his paper

Together with ASCE's legal department, an executive staff member drafts a carefully worded response to explain the publication review schedule and to deny the author's request for personal information about ASCE's staff members. The response also politely cautions the author about his tone in addressing members of the staff and invites him to examine the Society's public policy on workplace diversity.

Far from being chastened by this response, however, the author accuses the staff member of hypocrisy, stating that he believes the Society's staff are "tongue-in-cheek preaching diversity" while treating him unfairly because of assumptions based on his name and mailing address, which is outside the United States. He then forwards several inflammatory tracts that blame crime and other problems in his country of residence on various religious and ethnic groups, presumably in support of his demand for background information on the staff members with whom he is dealing.

Alarmed by the member's increasingly charged rhetoric and unwillingness to moderate his manner of communicating with staff members, ASCE's executive office takes the unusual step of referring the matter to the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) for advice and direction.


Did the member's conduct violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?


Although the conduct described here is generally considered under the lens of human resources management and employment law, it would appear to any fair observer that acts of bullying, harassment, or discrimination in a professional setting are hardly consistent with an engineer's ethical commitment to faithfully render service in a professional way. Yet a review of ASCE's Code of Ethics fails to reveal any language that defines such conduct as unethical. 

A discriminatory opinion in a professional report might raise questions about canon 3's strictures concerning objectivity, while an unwarranted attack on another professional might contravene canon 5's prohibition of "indiscriminate criticism" of another's work. Certainly in an employment setting, acts of workplace bullying or harassment may be inconsistent not only with the obligation set forth in canon 4 to serve an employer as a faithful agent or trustee but also with canon 7's exhortation to support "mutually satisfying relationships" between employers and employees

When a member's conduct seems to raise ethical questions that are not expressly addressed in the Code of Ethics, the CPC often gives careful attention to canon 6: "Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession."

The CPC contacted the member to remind him of his ethical obligations under this canon and to inform him that certain of his remarks, particularly those maligning groups or individuals on the basis of their race, religion, or national origin, violated that canon. But the member heatedly denied any suggestion of misconduct on his part. Pointing out that he himself was corresponding in a language that was not his native tongue, he argued that it was not discriminatory for him to criticize another person's language skills or suitability for a position. He averred that his correspondence with ASCE staff was merely a private exchange of emails and that as such any comments he made could not possibly have an effect on the overall reputation of the engineering profession.

After additional exchanges with the author, the members of the CPC concluded that formal disciplinary action was the only possible means of making it clear to him that his conduct had fallen short of the Society's ethical standards. The CPC members held that the member had violated canon 6 of the code, and they voted to recommend a three-year suspension in the hope that such a measure would underline the seriousness of the offense without barring future involvement in the Society on his part. 

The case was forwarded to ASCE's Executive Committee, which has final authority over cases that do not involve a potential expulsion. The author was advised of the hearing and told that he had a right to present a defense. While he declined to participate directly, he did send a written response that revealed perhaps some degree of remorse for his conduct, albeit qualified in a justification that people in his country were "not as sensitive" to remarks about race or ethnicity. Ultimately, the Executive Committee approved the CPC's recommendation, and notice of the suspension was published without naming the member in the Society's magazine

While it is still true today that the Code of Ethics does not expressly address harassment or discrimination, a recent initiative is expected to focus the Board of Direction's attention on this topic in the very near future. ASCE's Committee on Advancing the Profession, upon the recommendation of two of its subcommittees-the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and the Committee on Ethical Practice-recently voted to recommend the addition of an eighth canon to the Code of Ethics. The canon would affirm the engineer's ethical obligation to treat people fairly in all matters related to the profession without regard to gender, race, national origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, or other such characteristics

Article 11 of ASCE's constitution states that amendments to the Code of Ethics may be proposed at any meeting of the Board of Direction. Once the amendment is proposed, 75 days must elapse before the board can formally vote on it, and the amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. Notice of the amendment must be published on the Society website at least 30 days in advance of the Board vote. In accordance with these rules, formal notice of this proposed canon may be posted on the ASCE website in the next few months.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.

© ASCE, Civil Engineering , February 2017