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The Importance of Ethics in Engineering

female software engineer coding on computer

It is commonly believed that more senior engineers are the only ones that need to be ethical in their profession. In reality, ethics in engineering is important at every step of your career. Engineering is a profession that affects millions and millions of people each day so we are responsible to behave ethically, even when it is difficult.

Ethics is a very important topic in engineering and we don’t really give it the attention it deserves. I am currently in the process of getting my Professional Engineer (PE) license so this topic is very top of mind. As a PE, I will be able to stamp drawings certifying they are complying with applicable codes and that the design is safe. A PE has a tremendous responsibility to be ethical for the welfare of society as they certify the design is safe.

When I graduated, I went through the Order of the Engineer Ceremony and Currently wear my ring every single day. Here is what the Order of the Engineer means:

“The Order of the Engineer was initiated in the United States to foster a spirit of pride and responsibility in the engineering profession, to bridge the gap between training and experience, and to present to the public a visible symbol identifying the engineer. The Order is not a membership organization; there are never any meetings to attend or dues to pay. Instead, the Order fosters a unity of purpose and the honoring of one’s pledge lifelong.” Additionally, the ring represents the acceptance of those responsibilities and you will see many engineers wearing it.

Now, what is ethics? Since I am a civil engineer, I will give you some of the principles ASCE provides us with to behave and practice our profession in an ethical manner.

  • create safe, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure;
  • treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness in a manner that fosters equitable participation without regard to personal identity;
  • consider the current and anticipated needs of society; and
  • utilize their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of life for humanity.

When I was in school, we took an ethics class during senior year that touched the surface of some of the ethics codes. We evaluated multiple scenarios to be aware of what an ethical engineer may do. There are so many instances where engineers are challenged (directly or indirectly) that it is really important we understand the applicable codes.

I remember reading through some of these scenarios and not really differentiating which was ethical and which one was not. Sometimes it is not clear what is right and what is wrong and that is why it is so important to understand the applicable code of ethics.

I would recommend you spend some time reading the code of ethics that is applicable to you and understand when you may be at fault. Almost every professional organization has its own code of ethics (they are all very very similar and do not contradict each other). Another great code of ethics to read and have handy is the National Society of Professional Engineers’ (NSPE) code of ethics. You will notice this one is really similar to the one from ASCE.

Podcast Mini Series on Ethics

I recently completed a mini-series on the podcast talking about ethics in Engineering. Last year, Chad Morrison Reached out to me with a video presentation from Robert TRS talking about ethics. I split this series into two main segments. On the first one, I shared a good ethical engineer, and on the second one-two examples of unethical engineering behavior

The first presentation talks about the Citi Group Building in NY. If you are a structural engineer, you will find this one fascinating. First, the structure by itself is really interesting, and second, the story by itself is really interesting because they had to do a lot of workarounds for it to work leaving room for a lot of errors. Then the Engineer of Record failed to recognize one of the main lateral resisting systems was not designed for the worst-case scenario and a big storm was heading to NY.

Listen to the full episode below or watch it here:

The second presentation covers two different cases. In the first case, Robert talks about some of the unethical cases we have seen in the automobile industry. Including the Ford incident where cars that were rear-ended would burst into flame. In the end, Ford was aware of the problem and did an economic analysis of the death rate and injuries (to calculate the cost of the lawsuit) and determined that it would be cheaper to settle the lawsuits than to fix the issue. In the end, they ended up fixing the issue. Another case was the GMC ignition incident. The ignition switch was redesigned causing the keys to fall off while driving and thus shutting the engine off. This incident caused many accidents and as you can imagine the airbags would not deploy with the engine off. In the end, GMC fixed the issue but did not change the piece number so no one found out about the issue.

The second one talks about an engineer who did not stand up to an unethical supervisor making him practice engineering outside his field of expertise. This case was frustrating because sometimes as young engineers we are afraid to speak up and push back on what we believe (and know) is right. Let this be an example that no matter who is on the receiving end if they ask you to do something unethical, have the strength to push back. It is not their careers in line, it is yours!

Listen to the full episode below or watch it here:

Ethics is a topic that I personally have not heard much about in conferences and webinars. I barely heard much about it in college. But as I look ahead with increased responsibility at work, I cannot imagine a future where ethics should be a big part of what we do. We do work that is touching millions of lives every single day and we must behave to the highest standards.

I want to end this post with something that caught my attention. John Maxwell believes that when people get into an ethical dilemma and make unethical choices, they do so for one of three reasons:

  1. They do what is most convenient.
  2. They do what they think they must do to win.
  3. They rationalize their choices with relativism.

I hope you learned something from this post. As young engineers, it is difficult to stand up for our beliefs, especially when our supervisors or more senior engineers challenge us. Keep these examples in your mind and study the code of ethics.