Nov 1, 2019
The mid-1970s was a busy time for ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). Nearly a dozen ASCE members were disciplined by the Society for their involvement in the Baltimore County, Maryland, kickback scheme that led to Spiro Agnew's resignation from the vice presidency. A high-profile bribery scandal in another state resulted in CPC action against six ASCE members, while four additional members were swept up in a third state's investigation into bid-rigging. In all, more than 40 ASCE members were disciplined in a single three-year period for fraud, bribery, or similar financial improprieties. With so many reported cases of criminal activity, it might have been understandable if the volunteers staffing the CPC had found little or no time to address less egregious breaches of professional ethics. But in fact, the committee proved to be prolific in administering other complaints as well. The same threeyear period saw CPC action on several cases of academic misconduct, a handful of employment disputes, and one unusual case in which the CPC was asked to deliver ethical guidance on courtesy to an intemperate engineer.
A seventh-grade teacher assigns students in his social studies class the task of writing letters to elected officials on topics of current importance. One 11-year-old student uses the opportunity to contact her county engineer to voice concerns about a proposed infrastructure project. A small bridge in her neighborhood is greatly in need of repair, and the county has recently announced plans to replace the bridge entirely with a larger bridge. The student feels that this change might destroy the character of her hometown.
People in her neighborhood "like it simple," the student explains in her letter, "with a lot of wildlife and not too much traffic." She expresses fear that a bigger bridge might open the door to "big highways and factories," which "would scare away the wildlife and ruin the beauty there." While acknowledging that her views might seem "oldfashioned," she thinks it is important for her small village to remain small, and she asks the county engineer to consider simply repairing the current bridge rather than following through on the planned replacement.
The recipient of her letter is an ASCE member who has served in the elected role of county engineer for more than 30 years. Though the letter writer is likely unaware of this fact, the engineer is often interviewed by local news media on matters related to the county's transit needs, and his remarks evidence both a sharp tongue and an intolerance for perceived criticism. Both characteristics are evident in the engineer's response to the schoolgirl.
The engineer sends the girl a short, type-written response in which he curtly rejects her request to abandon the proposed bridge replacement. He reminds the girl that her village is not just an island all to itself but rather is part of the state they live in and, beyond that, the United States. He chastises her for thinking she can "just build a fence around [her] little community, paint it green, and tell everyone else to go away." He derides residents of her village as "moochers and parasites" who shun the development of civil, cultural, or social amenities within their own neighborhood but then "travel the county roads to other areas and impose on someone else to accommodate those needs."
The engineer claims that his own home is located near two busy highways but that he still sees abundant wildlife in his neighborhood. He suggests that the schoolgirl should wait until she has more experience with different communities before speaking out against changes to her own. Finally, not content with dismissing the substance of the girl's comments, the engineer concludes with an apparent attack on her writing skills, advising her to tell her teachers "to spend more time on spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure in the meantime."
The schoolgirl shares the response with her teacher, who in turn contacts a local reporter. The story moves quickly from local news coverage to the national wire, with columns across the country reporting on the "nasty" and "curmudgeonly" engineer. One particularly blistering editorial likens the engineer's actions to "attacking a fawn with a howitzer" and suggests that the engineer "stay away from the typewriter until he learns to control his temper."
A member of ASCE's CPC reads one of the news reports and presents the matter to the full committee for discussion.
Did the member's conduct in writing this letter violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?
This case was considered at a time when ASCE's Code of Ethics looked very different from the current code, but neither the earlier code nor today's code define a clear ethical mandate against simple rudeness. Both codes contain language barring false or malicious criticism, though in both cases the provision focuses on attacks directed at other professionals. Both codes also contain language about service to clients, but even if a member of his constituency could be considered an elected official's "client," it is still a reach to suggest that polite correspondence is a necessary element of the ethical obligation to provide faithful service.
Today's Fundamental Canon 8 requires engineers to "treat all persons fairly," and guideline a under that canon expects engineers to "conduct themselves in a manner in which all persons are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness." However, that canon was adopted at least with the stated intent of addressing unfairness based on an individual's protected characteristics, and while it is possible that the letter writer's age or gender may have influenced the engineer's response, the CPC might nevertheless struggle to clarify the applicability of Canon 8 in this case.
In the absence of specific language about the appropriate tone for communicating with members of the public, the CPC focused on Article 10, a provision roughly equivalent to today's Fundamental 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 felt that the engineer's response showed disrespect not only for the letter writer and other members of her community but also for his responsibilities as an elected offi cial and public servant. Though the committee did not feel that his conduct warranted a formal ethics investigation, they were unwilling to dismiss the matter without comment. Accordingly, the CPC sent the member an informal letter of censure, stating its belief that his behavior refl ected poorly on the honor, integrity, and dignity of the profession and advising him to contact the letter writer to "smooth out the matter."
While the circumstances of this case are perhaps unlikely ever to be repeated, the lessons it offers are, if possible, even more relevant today. Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is the fact that this exchange occurred by postal mail. Even if the girl's letter caught this engineer on a sensitive point or at the end of a bad day, it is still astonishing that he spent the time needed to type a letter, place it in an envelope, and add postage without reconsidering the wisdom of mailing such an unwarranted diatribe. In today's digital world, the speed of communication is all but instantaneous, making it all too easy for engineers to face a loss of employment, legal or ethical scrutiny, or other repercussions from a single text or email sent in a thoughtless moment.
As the days of printed news publications with limited audiences have given way to the age of social media, in which every individual is a potential journalist, any engineer who manages to demonstrate such a creative mix of a bad temper and an innocent target might easily become the focus of a viral post or social media campaign, with all the unpleasantness this entails.
Neither the case fi le nor local news accounts indicate whether the member in this case complied with the CPC's recommendation to make amends, but it is noted that the member lost his subsequent bid for reelection as county engineer, with news reports attributing at least some of the result to negative publicity from this event. His example clearly demonstrates that, while maintaining a professional manner may be a challenge in times of heated disagreement or offense from others, it is a wise ethical choice and sound business practice, minimizing the risk of bad blood or poor word of mouth that might tarnish an engineer's reputation or hinder future endeavors.
Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to
Civil Engineering, November, 2019, © American Society of Civil Engineers. All Rights Reserved