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Case Study Examines the Ethics of Professional Development

Sep 1, 2019

This month's column is based on a case study published in Engineering Ethics: Real World Case Studies (Reston, Virginia: ASCE, 2017), a thoughtful and engaging work highlighting the theoretical basis and the practical applications of engineering ethics. Gracious thanks are extended to the book's authors, Steven K. Starrett, Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, F.EWRI, F.ASCE, Amy L. Lara, Ph.D., and Carlos Bertha, Ph.D., for permission to use one of their scenarios in this column.


A junior engineer at a midsize firm has grown increasingly frustrated by what he perceives as his supervisor's lack of support for the professional development of his team. With profit margins tighter than ever, the engineer's company has drastically decreased the amount of money budgeted each year for its staff's professional memberships and continuing education. The limited funding that remains is left for the supervisors of each department to allocate at their discretion.

The engineer's supervisor is a highly active and engaged member of ASCE. Each year he attends at least one ASCE conference, and he routinely serves on ASCE technical committees and in other volunteer activities. The supervisor funds most of his ASCE activities from the professional development budget allocated to his department, leaving little available for the engineers under his supervision.

The junior engineer is passionate about his chosen career, and he is eager to expand his technical knowledge and his professional network by attending an ASCE technical conference. Unfortunately, each request he has made for support of travel expenses and registration fees has been denied because of lack of funding.

The supervisor routinely professes the benefits of ASCE membership to the engineers who report to him, and he is careful to share information obtained from his activities with his subordinates. Nevertheless, it is evident from his actions that he expects any direct involvement by his team in such professional activities to be done on their own time and at their own expense.


What are the ethical implications of this scenario?


Fundamental Canon 7 of ASCE's Code of Ethics states: "Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision." While few would dispute the idea that professional development is critical to the ethical practice of engineering, Canon 7 is perhaps one of the least emphasized of ASCE's canons and certainly the one that is least cited in cases considered by ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct.

One of the reasons for this lack of attention might be the difficulty in articulating case studies from which an ethical question might arise under Canon 7. Before the adoption of Canon 8, Canon 7 was sometimes used as a stand-in for express language on employment discrimination, using the stricture of its guideline d that engineers "shall uphold the principle of mutually satisfying relationships between employers and employees with respect to terms of employment." Yet, short of cases in which an act of employment discrimination or harassment might be characterized as an unwillingness to "provide opportunities for professional development," it is difficult to envision a set of circumstances that might trigger a finding that Canon 7's strictures have been violated. In the example used here, if the supervisor will not allocate company resources for training, does that mean he opposes his team's professional development? If the junior engineer becomes discouraged and stops asking for outside training, does that mean he has given up on professional development?

A better basis for discussion of this case study and of Canon 7 is the recognition that codes of professional ethics should not be viewed through the simple lens of compliance or noncompliance but rather as encouragement for engineers to continually strive for better service to the professional community, clients, and the public at large. Canon 7 offers two separate but complementary forms of ethical encouragement, each of which is of roughly equal importance.

The first clause in Canon 7 affirms that it is up to each engineer to commit to his/her own professional development. As observed in ASCE's most recent Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge: Preparing the Future Civil Engineer, given "the ever-increasing quantity of technical and nontechnical knowledge required of civil engineers, the...[k]nowledge, skills, and attitudes acquired at any point in time will not be sufficient for successful continued practice of civil engineering at the professional level spanning several decades." In view of this dynamic professional landscape, lifelong learning is not only an ethical imperative, but it is also a crucial investment in one's future relevance in the engineering workplace.

While some engineers may find it difficult to partake in professional conferences or similar activities because of constraints on time or personal finances or lack of opportunity, it is important to note that there are myriad ways for engineers to obtain meaningful professional development. Guideline a under Canon 7 offers several suggestions, urging engineers to "keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature, and attending professional meetings and seminars." In fact, almost every professional activity can be said to offer some opportunity for development, whether from exposure to new technical problems or considerations or from opportunities to hone skills in communication, negotiation, team building, or other nontechnical skills.

With reference to the case presented here, the first clause of Canon 7 stands for the premise that the junior engineer must take action to advance his own professional development despite any real or perceived obstacles at work. If the engineer finds that he is unable to partake in training that requires a significant outlay of time or money, he might still derive considerable benefits from exploring noor low-cost educational offerings from professional societies, seeking mentorship from senior engineers within the firm or elsewhere, or participating in local networking events.

On the other hand, the second clause of Canon 7 recognizes the special role that senior-level engineers play in supporting the development of their engineering workforce. If leadership can be defined as the art of inspiring others to achieve desired outcomes, then a necessary underpinning is that leaders must ensure that their teams have the knowledge and skills required to bring about those ends.

In the scenario described, while the supervising engineer is clearly attentive to his own professional development, it appears he has been less attentive to the needs and interests of the team that reports to him. Using the guidance offered by Canon 7's second clause, the supervisor should consider whether his team truly benefits from his decision to concentrate all training expenditures at the top or if it would be better served by a needs-based, rotating, or other more even-handed distribution of funding. He might consider ways to maximize access to training through less costly professional activities or by use of in-house expertise. Finally, if he concludes that resources for professional training are truly inadequate, he could serve as a messenger to his own leadership of the need for greater investment in its staff's personal development.

While ethics is often about sacrificing personal benefit to serve the needs of others, Canon 7 is an illustration of how engineers sometimes serve others best by serving themselves. Engineers who engage in lifelong learning are more adaptive to change, more respected and valued in the workplace, and more marketable in the engineering community. Employers and supervisors who promote professional development of staff, meanwhile, receive the benefits of a more productive and engaged professional team, are more likely to keep existing staff, and are more attractive to new employees. Collectively, these engineers and employers offer better service, greater competence, and more expert attention to the public welfare, making adherence to Canon 7 the foundation for all aspects of ethical practice.

Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.