Oct 1, 2010
A resolve to uphold high standards of ethical conduct can be a challenge at the best of times, and such a commitment can come under particular strain during an economic downturn. Reduced growth and limited project opportunities may increase the temptation for principals to cut corners or bend rules in order to preserve narrowing profit margins, and employees may be reluctant to "make waves" in the face of ethical concerns for fear of being cast into an unforgiving job market. The ASCE ethics hotline has received a number of calls from members confronting ethical dilemmas as a result of the recent recession. This scenario is an example of one such dilemma.
An ASCE member and professional engineer is left searching for work when the small firm at which he has been employed runs into financial difficulties and is forced to close. When a suitable engineering position does not materialize, he decides to respond to a newspaper ad seeking a construction inspector on a department of transportation project. While the member does not meet the particular qualifications requested, the state department and the consulting firm overseeing the hiring process decide that his engineering qualifications are more than sufficient for the position, and they hire him.
In the course of conducting his routine inspections, the member becomes concerned over certain aspects of the work pertaining to concrete construction and reinforcement. He compares the completed work with contract documents, codes, and specifications and notes on his daily work reports each instance in which the contractor has deviated from acceptable tolerances or project specifications. While each of these issues is comparatively minor, the member feels that, in their aggregate, they have the effect of lowering the quality of the construction.
But the member's reports detailing deficiencies soon meet resistance from others involved in the project. The project is over budget and behind schedule, and the contractor is eager to finish it as quickly as possible. Rather than rectify the problems brought to light by the member, the contractor's foreman contacts his project manager, who in turn reaches out to the project's resident engineer, hoping the latter will dismiss the member's concerns. While the resident engineer typically backs the member's assessments and decides that the deficiencies should be fixed, both the contractor and the project's chief inspector are angered at what they perceive as undue questioning of their ability to do the job.
Although the member is the only licensed professional engineer employed as a technician, several of the technicians on the inspection team have engineering backgrounds, and all appear to have taken the job as interim employment. None of the other technicians are subject to a professional code of conduct, and the member is the only person on the inspection team who is a member of ASCE. The other technicians seem to feel that the member is being overly zealous in his responsibilities as an inspector, and at least one of them comments that the contractors "know what they're doing" and that the member "doesn't need to stand over them checking all their work." The member is frequently reminded that he is not the responsible engineer on the project.
While the member has spoken generally to the resident engineer of his concerns, he is unsure what further course of action to take. Although he sees the employment as temporary, the job suits him, and he is afraid to lose it and jeopardize his family's financial security. He wonders if he is being too exacting in applying engineering ethics to his work as a paraprofessional technician.
Does a member's obligation to adhere to ASCE's Code of Ethics also apply to nonengineering work?
While the fundamental principles and canons of the Code of Ethics each begin with the word "Engineers," article 3 of the Society's bylaws (section 3.0) holds that "all members of the Society shall be familiar with the Society's Code of Ethics and bound by its provisions." Under authority of this governing document, the Committee on Professional Conduct routinely enforces the provisions of the code in reviewing the conduct not only of licensed engineer members but also of student, affiliate, and other members.
The committee has on several occasions debated the extent to which the Code of Ethics applies to activities outside the practice of engineering and extends to, for example, a member's personal or unrelated business activities. While recognizing the difficulty of extending the code's provisions to all aspects of a member's conduct, the committee felt that, in this situation, the clear relation to the civil engineering profession would indeed obligate the member to comply with the Code of Ethics.
With respect to the member's inspection reports, the committee noted that the member's actions should be governed by category (b) in the guidelines to practice for canon 3, which reads as follows: "Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony." If the member believes that the deficiencies pose a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of the public, canon 1 comes into play, obliging the member to inform his clients and employers of the consequences and perhaps even to furnish information concerning the public risk to the appropriate authorities.
Although the Committee on Professional Conduct sympathized with the member in this difficult situation, its members nevertheless felt that his status as a licensed engineer and his membership in ASCE constituted a promise to maintain the highest ethical standards in his professional dealings and that he would have to honor that promise even if it imposed a much higher burden on him than on his unlicensed colleagues.
© ASCE, ASCE News, October, 2010
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) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. 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 and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.