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Social Media Can Hold Unpleasant Surprises

Jan 1, 2017

Social media use has become all but ubiquitous in today's professional environment. Broadly defined as any Web-based platform that enables people to interact while creating and sharing information, social media offer convenient forums that make it possible for an engineering professional to stay connected to friends, family, and colleagues and to build relationships with current and potential clients, employers, suppliers, instructors, or advisers.

The most popular social media site, Facebook, currently boasts more than 1.5 billion active monthly users, and the most popular professional network, LinkedIn, has more than 400 million registered users. Millions of people regularly participate in media sharing, commentary, and discussion via such media as Instagram, Twitter,, and Pinterest. Though individual levels of engagement in social media may vary based on personal interest, geographic location, or other circumstances, it is clear that social media have changed the way in which people give and receive information.

Yet, as is the case with any highly powerful tool, the use of social media is not without risk. A single unwise or mistaken statement shared on social media can create an enormous ripple of unforeseen inimical effects for companies and individuals alike. When an individual who makes an unwise statement is an engineer, a doctor, an attorney, or other professional, these effects could justify a claim that the professional has breached his or her code of professional conduct.


What ethical issues come into play with social media, and when might a member's use of social media violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?


Communication is at the heart of an engineer's ethical obligations. The critical importance of communication can best be understood by noting that the guidelines to practice for every canon in ASCE's Code of Ethics address some aspect of communication, from the directive in category (c) in the guidelines for canon 1 to speak out when it is believed that a decision could adversely affect the health, safety, or welfare of the public to the exhortation in category (a) in the guidelines for canon 7 to participate in the activities of professional societies. Thus, as social media in essence provide a means of communication, it could be argued that every provision of the Code of Ethics has some bearing on social media use.

Nevertheless, a survey of social media missteps by engineers and other professionals has revealed some common trends. One is a failure on the part of professionals to consider how their use of social media may contravene their obligations to employers and clients. Canon 4 of the code reads as follows: "Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest." Put simply, this obligation means that the interests of the employer or client take precedence over those of the engineer.

In the realm of social media use, violations of this ethical provision may occur when a professional carelessly (or knowingly) uses proprietary employer or client information for his or her personal interest. For example, when an HP executive updated his LinkedIn profile to include his work on an "innovative and highly differentiated approach to cloud computing," he revealed information to his employer's competitors about his employer's forthcoming projects. If this case had involved an ASCE member, it could have been argued that, in violation of canon 4, the executive had placed his desire to enhance his professional profile over his employer's interests by failing to keep a corporate secret

A second common ethical misstep is using social media to cast aspersions on other professionals. Category (g) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5 is certainly relevant: "Engineers shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of another engineer or indiscriminately criticize another's work."

While public criticism enjoys a certain amount of protection under American law, it nonetheless goes without saying that heedless criticism of colleagues, clients, employers, or others can be both professionally costly and ethically suspect. An attorney in Florida was fined by his state bar association for posts in an online forum describing a judge as "mentally unstable" and "clearly unfit for her position," and an attorney in Illinois lost her job over a blog that assigned colleagues such names as "Judge Clueless." In an engineering setting, it could be argued that such remarks violate canon 5's prohibition of "indiscriminate criticism.

A third ethical misstep can arise when a professional expresses an opinion or offers a recommendation on social media without having proper knowledge of the subject. Such an action can raise implications with regard to canon 2's requirement that engineers perform services only in their areas of competence, and it may run counter to category (c) in the guidelines to practice for canon 3. Applied broadly, that category encourages engineers to offer opinions only when they are "founded upon adequate knowledge of the facts, upon a background of technical competence, and upon honest conviction.

For example, a South African dietician recently faced charges of unprofessional conduct after he advised a mother via Twitter to put her baby on a particular type of diet without having any information about the baby's health or about the baby in general. In similar fashion, if an engineering professional were to express a conclusion on an engineering matter without a sufficient grounding in the facts, it might be said that he or she had violated the requirement to offer expertise only when "founded upon adequate knowledge."

The examples presented here are only a small sampling of ethical issues that engineers should be aware of when engaging in social media. However, it is also worth noting that the issues encountered in connection with social media are no different from those that arise with other means of communication, from email to print correspondence. Social media differs only in the speed of communication and in the fact that the audience reached is orders of magnitude larger than an individual's traditional professional network. Yet those differences make it all the more important for engineers to exercise caution and use good judgment when sharing information through social media. As is often the case, the course of action that adheres closest to ethical precepts is also the most practically sound, ensuring that the engineer avoids litigation; maintains good relations with employers, clients, and colleagues; and upholds the highest standards of professional integrity. 

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 , January 2017