Ethics and Engineering

As engineers, we face a set of unique challenges. We literally create the things that make the world work, and without us, people don’t travel, eat, work, live. In a constantly-changing world we not only have to worry about whether or not something will happen, but how it will happen. The pressure is enormous, and it can be tempting to let the ethics of engineering take a back seat as we look for ways not only to make the world go round, but to also satisfy the people with the money making it spin in the first place.

Engineering ethics is more than just a backburner issue. It is, in fact, the only support that keeps us standing upright. In order to understand how vital this component of our job is, we must take a deeper look at how engineering ethics protects us and propels us forward.

Why is Ethics Important to the Profession of Engineering

We all want to work, right? We want to feed our families, pay for our mortgages, and build a life that sustains and fulfills us.

That is why the following statement is the single reason you cannot survive without adhering to the principles of engineering ethics in your job.

The public must trust you in order for you to be able to work.

That’s the long and short of it. Our industry is unique. For you to feed your families, what you engineer must work, and work consistently, and ensure that the lives it touches are safe. No other industry can so quickly  be dismantled by a public disaster as engineering.

Consider the space shuttle ChallengerThe ethics involved were complex, but in the end, public trust in manned space missions has never quite been the same. The end result was the loss of seven lives, and the effect has rippled across the industry for decades. No matter where the actual failure lay, the result still had an effect, and that’s why we’re here today.

Engineering Ethics

So what are engineering ethics? Considering you’re here reading this article, it’s a reasonable expectation that you’ve already learned this in school. But in case you need a refresher, here are the principles of engineering ethics as laid down by the Engineer’s Council for Professional Development-Founder Societies in 1932:

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honour, reputation and usefulness of the profession.

Public Trust and Engineering

As you can see, a lot of these principles are here to protect public trust. Upholding safety, health, and welfare creates a public more willing to utilize your services. Performing services only in your area of competence – and not simply taking any job for which someone is willing to give you money – lessens liabilities and creates trustworthy engineering. Truthful public statements also engender trust, being faithful, avoiding deception, conducting yourself honorably – it can all seem like kind of a given, a waste of time, participating in continuing education on ethics,  until you consider that the entire industry rests on a world that trusts the ground beneath their feet because we say it will hold them.

Without ethics, the idea of public trust falls apart.

We’ve talked about the established principles. Now let’s talk about what could possibly tempt us to break them.

Public Trust and Professional Engineers

As mentioned previously, our jobs put us on tremendous strain from many sides, so there are the obvious reasons: you might break ethics for financial reasons, and take a job not in your field of expertise simply because you need the funding. You might be under strain from an employer not to give a report honestly, or cut safety features from a design in order to please a thrifty investor.

But these are the obvious problems of ethics.

Let’s talk about that first one: upholding the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

Well, what exactly does that entail? All of us would, of course, say that this is our chief priority. Most people are decent, and don’t set out intentionally to endanger the lives of the public. But well-intentioned or not, there are ways it is possible to put human life at risk.

We’ve all learned, over the course of our careers, how quickly this industry moves. We live in a technological age, and no industry is more familiar than we with the speed of development, except perhaps the folks down in Silicon Valley. And part of our adherence to this first principle of ethics in engineering is making sure we maintain our education.

Continuing Education for Professional Engineers

Without keeping up with continuing education, public health and safety suffers. Keeping up with the CEU’s required for license renewal cannot be an afterthought, a chore, or something you do not take seriously. It must be a priority.

Continuing education units protect the people we serve, and is a critical part of upholding the standard of ethics it takes to foster the public trust we depend on.

Ethics doesn’t just protect us. It also lifts us up.

The ultimate goal would be to create an entire industry built on solid ethics. But it’s such a lofty goal that it can be overwhelming. Where do we get down to brass tacks and start making sure our foundation is solid?

The most important first step we can all take? Ensuring that our leaders understand what a position of leadership is.

Too often what we think that a leader gets respect because they are a leader. But this is not true. A leader earns respect by serving those he leads. Being put in charge of a group of people in any capacity is a service job, but in engineering, it means even more. So let’s look at what makes a good leader in an engineering position.

If you are serving your team members, trust begins with ensuring they can do their best work. Focus on individuals and their needs to help them reach their highest potential. You may need to remove distractions, create a space for discussion, and provide feedback. Through all stages of a project, communication is absolutely essential – not only to workplace relations, but also to ensure that those principles of ethics are being adhered to. If someone has a concern, they must feel comfortable enough to raise it.

But that’s not your only responsibility.

An engineering project has tons of moving parts, and one team does not a project make. Within engineering management, support means coordination. You must deliver necessary information between teams, clearly and concisely, so that the principles of ethics are being met.

“When engineering management is done right,” says Pilot CTO Jessica McKellar.*  “You’re focusing on three big things. You’re directly supporting the people on your team; you’re managing execution and coordination across teams; and you’re stepping back to observe and evolve the broader organization and its processes as it grows.”

This is where we combine all the smaller pictures to see the big one, and make sure, as an organization, as an industry, that we are operating to the high standards we set for ourselves.

Trust and Professional Engineers

Fostering trust is in the details.

We’ve already talked about how the principles of engineering ethics are the foundation of creating a thriving industry and are what allows us to work at all. We know that doing good and honest work is what gets us in the door, and continues to open doors for us the longer we work at it.

But what are some concrete examples of that?

First off, we need to focus on the individual. Our managers need to sit down with each engineer, and learn both what they feel they are best at, and what they would like to improve. Getting an idea of where continuing education needs to focus is key. Shoring up our weak spots creates less problems, and more reliability. More trust. If your firm can afford it, consider offering CEU training from within the firm itself, making it easier and more accessible for your employees to be the best they can be.

Engineering Ethics and Professional Conduct

Professionalism must also be a high priority. We must use it ourselves, and expect it of every person in every organization. This is more than just adhering to a set of principles, but a way of living our lives. Professionalism hearkens back to the idea of leadership as service, only this time, we are serving our clients, and dress, act, and conduct ourselves with service as our priority. When we enter into a contract, we conduct ourselves with an obligation to our client to make not just the project, but the experience, the best it can be.

Ensure good work by starting with managers. Invest in leadership training, and create a culture in your firm of work through service. If your managers are in the right mindset, everyone they lead will soon follow.

Check and re-check your methods of communication. Are they clear? If not, devise new methods. Are you communicating entirely through e-mail? Set up weekly in-person meetings. Are you only communicating in only person? Set up an e-mail chain. Your communication must be clear to avoid mistakes. Try out new methods, and see what works best for your firm.

All of these practices will add up to better work, and doing good work over time is the best and most reliable way to create trust.

How Engineers Can Maintain Ethical Behavior

Ethics in engineering has been debated in the past, but what it boils down to is this: do your best work, conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, and provide an end product that people can trust. In every industry, human error exists, but in this one, the faith of the public is so paramount to our continued existence that when we do find ourselves making mistakes, we must own up to them honestly and fix them without delay.

Remember that continuing education is not just a requirement of your license, but something that protects the public, and that leadership in engineering means making room for every person to work at the things they are expert at, and improve in the things they are not. Clear communication is vital, and to engender faith in us and what we do, we must dress, act, and deliver to the highest standards.

It sounds simple to say “ethics are the most important” – but in the industry of engineering, we cannot live without them.

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