An engineer and ASCE member is attending a large engineering conference. The engineer's firm is planning to make a sizable computer system and software purchase, and many of the potential suppliers are exhibiting their wares at the conference. The engineer expects to play a role in the purchasing decision, so he visits the exhibit booths to learn more about the vendors' products. At one of the booths the engineer is invited to put his business card in a jar as part of a raffle the vendor is conducting. The engineer does so, and a few days after the conference he is contacted by the vendor and told that he has won the grand prize, a $500 gift certificate.
While the engineer has no reason to believe his win was anything other than "the luck of the draw," he is concerned that accepting the prize would be inappropriate in light of the potential business dealings he may have with the vendor. He discusses the issue with his immediate supervisor and contacts the ASCE hotline for ethics advice.
What ethical considerations are involved in deciding whether or not the engineer should accept the raffle prize?
Canon 4 of ASCE's Code of Ethics 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." A conflict of interest may be defined as any situation in which financial or other personal relationships might impair a person's ability to hold paramount the interests of his or her client or employer.
Receiving a gift or gratuity from a current or potential vendor represents a conflict of interest because it creates the possibility that the recipient may place more importance on continuing a beneficial relationship with the donor than on selecting the best vendor for his or her employer. While the financial benefit in this case is a raffle prize rather than an outright gift or gratuity, it is still possible that the employee may be so influenced by the prize that he is unable to dispassionately assess the merits of the products offered by the vendor. The employee in this case therefore has an ethical obligation to take steps to address the potential conflict of interest.
While the simplest solution here would be for the engineer to decline the prize, the requirement in the Code of Ethics to "avoid" conflicts of interest recognizes the possibility that not all potential conflicts of interest must be-or even can be-eliminated. (Indeed, the code does not flatly prohibit engineers from taking part in professional matters in which they have a conflict of interest.) Instead, the treatment prescribed by the code for most potential conflicts of interests is full disclosure to all parties involved in the transaction.
The guidelines to practice for canon 4 have this to say: "Engineers . . . shall promptly inform their employers or clients of any business association, interests, or circumstances which could influence their judgment or the quality of their services." This stricture reflects the view that the party best placed to decide how to address an engineer's potential conflict is the party whose interests would be affected by the engineer's actions. The affected party may decide to require the party in question to recuse himself or herself from all participation in the activity, may allow for limited participation, or may decide that the potential conflict is so insubstantial that no action is warranted.
In the case at hand, the engineer discussed the prize with his immediate supervisor, who in turn referred the question to the firm's president. After receiving assurances from the vendor that the prize was a legitimate raffle, the president agreed that the engineer could accept the prize, subject to the requirement that any decision on future contracts with the vendor be approved by the engineer's supervisor and that the vendor be notified that the engineer would have no decision-making authority.
Situations such as this illustrate the importance of establishing corporate policies and guidelines for conflicts of interest. This is advisable not only for reasons of ethics but also as a regulatory and business matter. A well-written conflict policy should comply with state corporation laws, which often govern conflict of interest disclosures for officers and directors of a corporation, and should also serve as a tool for staff members and employees in understanding and resolving the various types of conflicts that may be encountered in the workplace.
© ASCE, ASCE News, October, 2008