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Reviewing the Civil Engineer’s Ethical Obligations at Home and Abroad (Part 2)

May 1, 2019

This is the second of two columns comparing ASCE's Code of Ethics to a sampling of codes adopted by international engineering societies. While the first column evidenced an overall consistency among codes in articulating the principles of ASCE's Fundamental Canons 1-4, a review of the remaining ASCE canons highlights definitive differences in philosophy when compared to some international codes.


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



ASCE's Canon 5 states: "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others." Some of the international codes surveyed for this column include language that mirrors this stricture. The Code of Ethics for the Colombian Society of Civil Engineers urges members "to work based on your merits, seeking to enhance your prestige, dignity, and good name," while the Institution of Engineers (India)'s code states simply that members "should compete on the basis of merit alone."

Specific examples of unfair competition are covered in Canon 5's supplemental guidelines, and these, too, are well represented among international codes. The Rules of Conduct of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE), for example, dictates that members "shall not maliciously or recklessly injure nor attempt to injure, whether directly or indirectly, the professional reputation of another engineer," while the Code of Conduct for the Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC) states that "a member shall not allow himself to be listed for employment using exaggerated statements of his qualifications."

A few international societies build upon guideline e's mandate to "give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due" with an expansive list of circumstances in which this edict applies. For example, the Code of Ethics for the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka states that engineers "shall not resort to any form of plagiarism in their work" and that "this includes use of such materials as written text, statistics or similar data, diagrams, illustrations and photographs in reports, publications, examination answers, coursework submitted for academic or professional qualifications, etc., without permission, acknowledgement, or reference, as if it is the person's own work."


A handful of international codes echo Canon 6's requirement to "act with zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption." Engineers Australia's Guidelines on Professional Conduct states that engineers must not "engage in fraudulent, corrupt, or criminal conduct," and the Institution of Engineers Rwanda (IER) requires that members "must not engage in any act of dishonesty, corruption, or bribery."

Strikingly, two international codes contain no express reference to bribery, corruption, unfair competition, or other types of business impropriety. This probably does not reflect a difference of opinion about whether this type of conduct is ethically permissible but rather a difference in focus of these ethical codes. The Code of Ethics of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers (JSCE) is perhaps the most holistic of codes reviewed for this column, emphasizing in its preamble "the profound interrelationship of [the] profession with both human society and nature." For that reason, this code presents a high-level treatment of the engineer's obligation to advance societal well-being, emphasizing general virtues, such as fairness and integrity, rather than the practical applications of these virtues in an engineer's business affairs.

Meanwhile, the preamble to the Ethical Principles for the Association of German Engineers (VDI) notes that the code is intended to support engineers "as they face conflicting professional responsibilities." In other words, rather than spelling out the difference between ethically right and wrong decisions, this code chooses to focus on how an engineer should prioritize between two "rights"-for example, honoring professional standards over contractual obligations.

Despite this difference in focus, both the JSCE and VDI codes contain language regarding legal compliance; the former states that engineers must "carry out their work in full understanding of all laws, rules, and regulations," while the latter directs that "engineers know the relevant laws and regulations of their countries…[and] honor them insofar as they do not contradict universal ethical principles." As such, it can be argued that an ethical prohibition on bribery, fraud, and other types of unlawful behavior may be inferred in these codes.


While not always using the same vocabulary, almost all codes express principles similar to Canon 6's stricture to "enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession." The Code of Ethics for the College of Civil Engineers of Mexico (CICM) dictates that engineers must "actively contribute to the prestige, reliability, and good image of the profession," while the Rules of Professional Conduct for the U.K.'s Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) requires engineers to "behave with integrity in relation to all conduct bearing upon the standing, reputation, and dignity of the…profession of civil engineering."


While ASCE's Canon 7 may sometimes receive less attention because of the difficulty in measuring or enforcing engineers' commitment to continue their professional development and support the professional development of others, the importance of this concept is underscored by the fact that it is expressed in nearly all codes reviewed for this column. The JSCE code says that engineers should "cultivate and nurture their virtues, general knowledge, and professional competence; pursue scientific endeavors in the realms of both scientific and practical theories for the sake of technological advances; and put to use their individual abilities, experience, and merits for the education and training of engineers," while the South African Institution of Civil Engineering's code directs members to "continue the development of their own and the profession's knowledge, skill, and expertise in the art and science of civil engineering and technology, and share and exchange advances for the benefit of society."


When ASCE first adopted in July 2017 Canon 8's requirement to "treat all persons fairly," it joined a number of international societies with similar language in their ethical codes. The CICM code requires engineers "to treat [all people] with respect, justice, and equity, without distinction of gender, ethnicity, ability, social position, ideology, age, religion, or nationality," while Engineers Australia directs engineers to "apply knowledge and skills without bias in respect of race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital or family status, national origin, or mental or physical handicaps."

Interestingly, ICE's guidelines note that fair treatment entails a commitment not only to avoid actions that unduly harm individuals but also those that unduly favor others. In addition to its prohibition on discrimination, it adds that members also "must not treat anyone more favorably because of their race, nationality, country of origin, religion, gender, [or] status, or because they are related to the member or have family connections with the member."


While most of the ethical obligations expressed in these international codes find some degree of equivalency to ASCE's Code of Ethics, a few outliers are worthy of note. A handful of international codes contain language that was removed from ASCE's Code because of conflicts with federal antitrust law, such as prohibitions on "supplanting" other engineers. Some codes offer provisions that express engineering employers' obligations to their staffs. For example, PEC's Code of Conduct requires that engineers must "offer remuneration [commensurate] with the qualifications and experience of an engineer employed by him" and "not restrain an employee from obtaining a better position with another employer."

Finally, some codes offer express guidance on ethical obligations in international practice. HKIE's code says that an engineer will "when working in a country other than Hong Kong, order his conduct according to the existing recognized standards of conduct in that country, except that he should abide by these rules as applicable in the absence of local standards." Conversely, IER's code says that an engineer "must order his/her conduct in connection with work outside the borders of the Republic of Rwanda in accordance with [IER's] rules in as far as they are not inconsistent with the law of the country concerned."

Ultimately, the ethical codes surveyed for this column are far more striking in their similarities than in their differences. As ethical codes are shaped by the professionals who are governed by them, and as international practice increasingly becomes the norm, it remains to be seen whether such codes will eventually converge into a single universal standard, or if some level of regional or cultural differences will always remain.

With grateful appreciation to Jaime Santamaría and Jorge Díaz Padilla from ASCE's Committee on Ethical Practice, for their assistance with the Spanish-language professional codes.

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

© ASCE, Civil Engineering, May, 2019