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Misrepresentation of Professional Credentials Is an Ethical Breach

Jul 1, 2016


Situation

A civil engineering professor at a state university attends the annual meeting of her local ASCE branch. The event includes a reception and an awards ceremony, and one of the awards is conferred on a younger member who has demonstrated both professional and academic excellence and service to the Society. The award consists of an engraved plaque and a small cash prize.

The recipient is the secretary of the branch's younger member group. In announcing the award, the branch officer provides a summary of what he describes as the younger member's "exceptional achievements." He notes that the member had obtained a degree in structural engineering from the professor's university three years earlier, graduating with honors, that he was currently pursuing a master's degree at another local university, and that he had been instrumental in coordinating community service projects and other activities first as a student chapter leader and later as an officer of the younger member group.

The list of the recipient's achievements is puzzling to the professor, for she has no recollection of this member as a student in any of her classes. The professor prides herself on her ability to recall her former students, and she is particularly good at remembering students who have distinguished themselves academically. More telling, the professor has for many years taught required senior-level classes in structural engineering, making it difficult for a student to graduate from the university in that field without taking one of her classes. 

The professor's questions about the award recipient are sufficiently troubling to prompt her to contact the university's registrar in order to verify the recipient's credentials. While privacy laws limit how much the university can disclose about the student's enrollment, the registrar informs the professor that the member had been enrolled at the university through his junior year but had not obtained a bachelor's degree and was no longer a student at the university. 

Her suspicions confirmed, the professor then contacts a colleague at the university at which the award recipient claimed to be pursuing a master's degree. This colleague is able to confirm that the member had not even applied to the university. 

The professor contacts the branch president to disclose her findings about the younger member, and the president in turn forwards the information to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). 


Question

Did the member's conduct in making false statements about his academic qualifications violate ASCE's Code of Ethics?

Decision

The art of "packaging" one's academic and professional achievements can be an invaluable tool in securing scholarships, job offers, or other professional recognition. Skillful wording can suggest hidden depths of critical thinking in a routine job or imply that minor professional accomplishments are of great significance. While there may not always be a clear distinction between stating and overstating one's professional qualifications, when a member goes beyond mere puffery to intentional deception, it is evident that an ethical principle has been violated.

Canon 5 of the Code of Ethics is certainly relevant here: "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others." Moreover, category (d) in the guidelines to practice for this canon adds the following: "Engineers shall not falsify or permit misrepresentation of their academic or professional qualifications or experience." The latter proscription under canon 5, which deals with unfair competition, reflects the fact that an individual who falsifies his or her credentials gains an unfair advantage over those who claim only achievements they have legitimately earned.

Furthermore, misrepresentations of professional credentials may cross ethical lines under a number of other canons as well. Such statements are prohibited by canon 3, which demands objective and truthful accounts, and by canon 6, which insists upon honor and integrity. When the misrepresentation is made to an employer or client, canon 4 comes into play in that it insists that an engineer serve as a faithful agent or trustee.

When contacted by the CPC, the younger member flatly denies having misstated his academic credentials. He insists that he indeed graduated from the state university as indicated, and he dismissively speculates that the complainant must in some way resent his management of the younger member group's activities. However, when asked to provide documentation of his undergraduate degree, the younger member suddenly becomes somewhat less assured.

The member claims that he recently moved and that his diploma and other academic paperwork are somewhere in the storage unit he rented. He states that he will gladly send proof of his degree when he has unpacked, but he is unable to say precisely when that will be. He also incorrectly contends that he cannot ask the university to provide documentation because the university does not offer such services during its summer break.

The CPC contacts the two universities to confirm the professor's description of the student's enrollment status and to ensure that no mistake in the student's name or other error could have occurred. When the CPC forwards this information to the younger member for comment, he stops responding altogether. 

With no other defense being offered by the member, the CPC has no choice but to consider the case on the basis of the information it has already received. Its deliberations, however, prove to be highly contentious. Two of its members argue that the committee should attempt to view the member's conduct in the best possible light, theorizing that the member may have been ashamed to admit he left school for personal or academic reasons and may have wanted to retain the respect and camaraderie he enjoyed as an active member of a professional society. They note that there is no evidence the member sought work under false pretenses or misled anyone outside the context of his volunteer work, and they point out that he unquestionably made valuable contributions as a volunteer. In view of these factors and in light of the member's youth, these CPC members argue that the member's ethical lapse does not warrant severe disciplinary action.

Other CPC members, however, are gravely concerned by the member's failure to admit his deception even when confronted with evidence from the university. They argue that the committee had given the member ample opportunity to be truthful and that they would be more inclined to be lenient if he had simply acknowledged his ethical misstep and apologized. They note that even if they could sympathize with the member for wishing to conceal his lack of a bachelor's degree, they could not overlook his contention that he had graduated with honors and had enrolled in a master's program. They further point out that these claims may have influenced the branch in honoring him with the award. Finally, they opine that deceit about one's qualifications to obtain entrance into the profession ranks among the worst of all ethical breaches and in this case raises serious questions about the member's overall integrity and sense of honor. The Society's response, they argue, should reflect the gravity of the ethical lapse.

Swayed by these arguments, the members of the CPC hold that the younger member's actions violated canon 5 and recommend that he be expelled from the Society. In cases involving expulsion, the decision requires a full hearing before ASCE's Board of Direction. ASCE staff members attempt to contact the member to advise him of his right to present a defense, but the member again fails to respond. Meanwhile, reports from the branch indicate that the member has abruptly ended his volunteer work with the younger member group.

Ultimately, the CPC's recommendations are upheld by the Board, and notice of the member's expulsion is published in a Society publication without giving the member's name.

While this case involves a younger member, it is an unfortunate fact that the temptation to misrepresent one's credentials may arise at any stage of a person's professional career, particularly in today's highly competitive job market. In 2007 a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology resigned after it was revealed that she had lied about her academic degrees, a lie she had made when first applying to the university and had "lacked the courage to correct" for nearly three decades as a member of the institute's staff. In 2012 the chief executive of Yahoo resigned when it was discovered that he had lied about possessing a degree in computer science. The error, he said, was contained in a statement by a placement firm that he had failed to review. 

In any case, professionals should be mindful of the fact that a résumé is as much a professional statement as is engineering testimony or an engineering report. Thus it is subject to the same requirements of diligence and honesty. Moreover, given the current ease of access to past employment and academic information, it may be very costly to assume that a white lie or an outright falsehood on one's résumé will escape detection. As is often the case, meeting the obligation of truthfulness is not only an ethical mandate but also the most practical choice for long-term success.



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 , July 2016