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Changing Times, Enduring Ethical Obligations

Sep 1, 2014

Much attention has been devoted recently to the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel regarded as one of the profession's most significant achievements. This month, however, ASCE commemorates the 100th anniversary of an entirely different civil engineering achievement: the Society's Code of Ethics.

The subject of several decades of proposal and defeat reflecting a debate about the merits of codifying an engineer's moral obligations and the appropriateness of the Society policing its members, ASCE's original Code of Ethics was finally approved by a vote of the Society's membership on September 2, 1914. The new code read, in its entirety, as follows:

It shall be considered unprofessional and inconsistent with honorable and dignified bearing for any member of the American Society of Civil Engineers:

  1. To act for his clients in professional matters otherwise than as a faithful agent or trustee, or to accept any remuneration other than his stated charges for services rendered his clients.
  2. To attempt to injure falsely or maliciously, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, or business, of another Engineer.
  3. To attempt to supplant another Engineer after definite steps have been taken toward his employment.
  4. To compete with another Engineer for employment on the basis of professional charges, by reducing his usual charges and in this manner attempting to underbid after being informed of the charges named by another.
  5. To review the work of another Engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge or consent of such Engineer, or unless the connection of such Engineer with the work has been terminated.
  6. To advertise in self-laudatory language, or in any other manner derogatory to the dignity of the Profession.

In the 100 years since its adoption, the code has seen more than a dozen substantive revisions, and a comparison of the original code with today's version provides some interesting insights into the evolution of professional ethics. The situations presented here are intended to highlight various aspects of that evolution.

SCENARIO 1: An engineer is hired by a state department of transportation to conduct a feasibility study for a proposed highway bypass. The engineer owns real estate whose value could be significantly affected by the project. Without disclosing his ownership of the property, the engineer conducts the study and presents a recommendation that will raise the value of his real estate.

SCENARIO 2: An engineer is retained by a large company to evaluate its compliance with environmental standards governing the disposal of manufacturing waste. The engineer determines that the company's practices do not comply with applicable laws and presents options to address the problem, all of which would require significant expenditure. The company accepts the report and reminds the engineer of the confidentiality agreement she signed prior to commencing her work. Although the engineer has reason to believe that the company will not address its noncompliance and feels that its inaction may be detrimental to the public, she honors the terms of her agreement and does not disclose any information about the environmental practices.

SCENARIO 3: A state agency contracts with a firm to design and build a major infrastructure project. During the early stages of construction, the project experiences a number of unexpected setbacks, and the state's project manager becomes convinced that the problem resides with the project's design. The manager commissions a review of the project by another engineering firm, which-without consulting the original firm-reviews the project plans and agrees that the design is inadequate. After terminating the agreement with the original firm, the state agency contracts with the second firm to complete the project.

QUESTION: How would these situations be judged under the Code of Ethics as it existed in 1914 and as it exists today?

DISCUSSION: With its six articles focusing on the treatment of fellow engineers and engineering clients, the 1914 code almost reads as a set of guidelines for business protocol rather than as a statement of ethical duties. This is not to say that the engineers responsible for its adoption did not care about the public welfare or the law; rather, they felt that such principles were inherent in the practice of engineering and so did not need to be formally enunciated. Since today's code, however, has a very strong emphasis on legal compliance and the public welfare, an express statement is seen as crucial as a symbol of this commitment and as a reference for engineers faced with ethical dilemmas. Although business conduct is not ignored in today's code, the focus is on ensuring that the conduct is not inimical to the public.

Both the first and the second scenario involve the engineer's obligation to act "as a faithful agent or trustee" for a client. Set forth in article 1 of the 1914 code and today found in canon 4, the engineer's duty to his or her clients is the only ethical obligation to remain largely unchanged over the past century. (While article 2 and parts of article 6 in the 1914 code also may be found in today's code, both are now treated as supplemental guidelines under canon 5's broader requirement that engineers "shall not compete unfairly with others.")

Given the similarities in their language, it might be presumed that the codes of 1914 and 2014 would reach the same result in scenarios 1 and 2. And such is indeed the case for the first scenario, for here the engineer's failure to disclose facts that might compromise the integrity of his professional judgment would clearly contravene his obligation to serve "as a faithful agent or trustee." 

However, in scenario 2 it is essential to note that in today's code the language on faithfulness to a client has been clarified to ensure that such loyalty in no way conflicts with canon 1, which requires the engineer to "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public." The engineer's inaction here may have prevented adequate protection of the public. Thus conduct that might have passed muster under the 1914 code would violate canon 1 of today's code.

With respect to the final scenario, under the 1914 code the second engineer would have undoubtedly violated article 5's prohibition on reviewing an engineer's work without his or her consent. Yet while even today many might find the second firm's action to be questionable, if not outright unprofessional, there is no express language in the current code requiring an engineer to give notice prior to reviewing another engineer's work.

This is not to say that the facts of the third scenario are beyond the purview of the current code. If it were found that a reviewing engineer had made false or misleading statements about the original design or had unjustly criticized the design engineer or his or her work, particularly if those statements were made for the purpose of undermining the business relationship between the designer and the state agency, the reviewer might be found under today's code to have violated canon 3's stricture on truthful and objective statements as well as canon 5's obligations on unfair competition.

The changes that have been made to the code over the past 100 years in response to changing conditions demonstrate that an ethical code is a living document that captures the collective wisdom of a profession that is itself growing and changing on a constant basis. In view of the code's progression from what might be viewed as a set of business guidelines to a document that places a premium on public service, it is tempting to speculate what the next 100 years may bring. Will the code's ethical principles remain essentially the same, or will they change again to reflect the needs of a new century's engineers?

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) 295-6151 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.

© ASCE,  Civil Engineering , September 2014