Oct 1, 2018
A new employee is hired to join the staff of a small engineering firm. The employee uses a wheelchair, and he asks his new coworkers' assistance in ensuring that aisles and hallways within the office are kept clear of obstructions. Unfortunately, in the cramped and cluttered workspace, it is not uncommon for other employees to leave file boxes, small equipment, and other materials on the floor--making it difficult for the employee to navigate his wheelchair through the office space.
When several reminders fail to alleviate the problem, office management decides to relocate the new employee to an office that is conveniently located near the entrance and other facilities. This location is significantly larger and more private than the space allocated to others with equal or greater seniority within the firm, and some employees take the action as a personal affront. While no one directly challenges the firm's decision, it becomes a source of tension between the new employee and his colleagues, and grumblings about "special treatment" are openly voiced in the wheelchair user's presence.
Elsewhere, employees at another engineering firm meet up off-hours on a regular basis for fun social activities. A sizable majority of the firm's employees are male, and many of them are avid outdoor sports enthusiasts. Most of the group's scheduled activities consist of fishing, recreational shooting, attending professional sports events, and similar activities. One of the firm's employees is a female and a mother of small children. Though she is routinely invited to join the group in its social activities, she never accepts. Members of the group conclude that she is simply uninterested in socializing with colleagues outside the workplace.
In a third firm, an engineer finds himself increasingly frustrated with his work situation. Though he is in his late 50s, he does not envision himself retiring for at least another decade. At the same time, the engineer is concerned that he is not keeping current on new skills and technologies. The engineer has made multiple requests for his employer to fund his attendance at training courses relevant to his field, but his requests are denied in favor of steering the firm's limited training dollars to younger team members. At the same time, the engineer feels that the firm's most interesting work is being directed away from him. When he objects in one instance to the allocation of work, his supervisor points to his younger colleagues' greater familiarity with new software and claims that the current assignments are more "efficient." The engineer considers seeking employment elsewhere, but he fears that job offerings for an employee of his age are likely to be sparse
A fourth engineer receives a job offer that requires him to relocate from his home state to another part of the country. The engineer was an active volunteer for ASCE in his hometown, but he is less successful in finding opportunities to support the local group in this new area. Though he is initially welcomed as a new volunteer, his ideas and recommendations are often met with a dismissive "that's not how we do it here." He also quickly tires of the way other volunteers find humor in his regional accent, style of dress, and other distinctive traits. When his initial commitment to a volunteer project is complete, he does not seek another opportunity to serve.
How do these hypothetical scenarios relate to Fundamental Canon 8 of ASCE's Code of Ethics?
Adopted by the Board of Direction in July 2017, ASCE's newest ethical canon, Fundamental Canon 8, reads as follows: "Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation without regard to gender or gender identity, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, or family, marital, or economic status."
Like the seven canons that precede it, Canon 8 was written to present the ethical precept in a positive light rather than a negative one-i.e., "engineers shall" rather than "engineers shall not." This phrasing was an intentional choice made by the current Code of Ethics' original drafters, who felt that this construction would demonstrate that the goal of ASCE's code is to encourage desirable conduct, rather than to discourage unacceptable conduct.
Despite this implied message embodied in the Code's structure, it is perhaps all too common for engineers to think of professional conduct in terms of prescribed behavior. Indeed, this column itself may contribute to that perception of professional ethics; in focusing each month on ASCE's enforcement of its code, and discussions about what actions the Committee on Professional Conduct deem to violate that code, these articles can be readily combined into a list of ethical "shall nots" (e.g., engineers shall not offer or accept bribes, shall not falsify timesheets, shall not provide false testimony, and so on).
Viewed under this lens of ethical "shall nots," it may be tempting to read Canon 8 as little more than a restatement of federal and state equal opportunity laws, a requirement that engineers shall not discriminate against employees, customers or other members of the public on the basis of a protected characteristic such as age, disability, or gender. Yet while it is true that ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct may only take disciplinary action in the case of a member who engages in flagrant acts of harassment or discrimination, the scenarios presented in this column demonstrate how limiting that interpretation of Canon 8 can be.
As a guidepost for positive behavior, Canon 8 should instead be understood to stand for the expectation that engineers will take steps to ensure that others' contributions are treated with appropriate value and respect, and that no one is made to feel that a difference in background, life experience, or other personal attributes has made them unwelcome within the professional community. This ethical obligation is more basic but also potentially more challenging. An engineer who would never consciously take an action to exclude or disadvantage other might nevertheless struggle to recognize how an unconscious preference for his/her own interests and experiences might be distancing for individuals with different needs and interests, or how behaviors that are engaged in for the sake of convenience or economy may have the unintended consequence of excluding others from equal participation in workplace or professional activities.
With regard to the fourth scenario presented, it should be noted that the list of attributes described in Canon 8 was intended to capture a spectrum of characteristics that are commonly deemed to merit protected status. Many have noted the absence of other categories that are currently protected under federal law, such as military/veteran status and genetic information, while a list of protected characteristics under U.S. state law might also include attributes such as weight (protected in Michigan) and personal appearance (protected in the District of Columbia). Given the intent behind the drafting and adoption of Canon 8, engineers who wish to fully embrace the aspirational goals of Canon 8 should consider its list of attributes as merely illustrating the principles of "equitable participation," and not a precise outline of its ethical boundaries.
Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to
Members who have ethics questions 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.