“Ethics in Engineering”


Using his state’s Code of Ethics for Engineers and Surveyors, the author illustrates how moral behavior can lead to engineering excellence.

by David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE

Ethics in its simplest form is a system of moral principles that are concerned with the good of society and the individual; it can be described as a moral philosophy. The term is derived from the Greek word ethos, which can mean custom, habit, character, or disposition. This moral philosophy or code of moral conduct is the code practiced by individuals, societies, governmental agencies, and business. Ethics involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior and attempts to devise the principles by which we conduct a life worth being lived.

We are defined by our ethical behavior as an individual and how society perceives us. These are the norms of behavior that everyone should follow. Without such ethical behavior, our society might fall into chaos as each individual could pick and choose what they perceived as right or wrong. Appropriate behavior is characterized by honesty, fairness, and equity in interpersonal, professional, academic, and public relationships in which we respect the dignity, diversity, and the rights of individuals and groups of people. Some of the terms usually equated with ethics are autonomy (freedom to decide the right to refuse), confidentiality (private information), justice (social and/or procedural), integrity, objectivity, professional competence, and professional behavior.

Another word that is integral to ethics is moral, which come from the Latin word mores, for habits. When moral is used as an adjective, it means good, proper, or ethical. One who has a strong moral character is a good member of society. As a moral person, our conduct is good or virtuous, especially concerning sexual and ethical conduct; it means that we try to do what is right and ethical. Being moral involves respect for others, believing and supporting family, adjusting and compromising, believing in fairness and justice, being honest, and never wanting to hurt anyone.

So ethical and moral behaviors are intractably connected and involve a personal commitment to act in the best interests of the people over those of the individual. But they also lead to much interpersonal conflicts and pressures as we must balance them for self-preservation vs. the public good. In my view, we all listen to that “little voice” hidden in our mind to ensure we are making the correct decisions that reflect well on us and enhance the good of “we the people” and that my actions will not bring shame or embarrass my family. We should always ask ourselves, “What would my mother or grandmother think about my actions? Would these actions show up in the local newspaper?” Everyone should have this little internal voice that knows right from wrong, or at least that has been my belief—that is until someone reminded me that each of us comes from a different background, environment, and life experiences. These differing sociocultural dimensions that influence one’s judgment, including gender, age, and culture, have a significant effect on how, as individuals, we judge our actions. So, to better understand our actions and the actions of others, we must each place ourselves in the other person’s mindset. When one communicates and discusses these differing perspectives, we can become more understanding and establish a common set of ethical and moral principles.

Working from a common set of ethical and moral principles will lead us to making wise judgments about our behavior and how it impacts others. It will also bring us closer to the common good of the public and our role as Professional Engineers and design professionals in maintaining our ethical obligations.

How Are Ethics Policed?

Now that we have an understanding of ethical and moral principles, let us look at the public’s expectations and legal obligations. All professionals (medical and dental personnel, attorneys at law, accountants, teachers, engineers, etc.) have a code of ethics under which they operate. Most of these codes come from the organizations from which we work, the bodies that issue our registrations, or the professional societies of which we are members.

These codes are only binding to the extent that our own character requires us to be. While the organizations, bodies, or societies may have the ability to sanction someone, their ability to hold someone legally accountable is minimal. Engineering is similar in that our professional organization, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), has a published code of ethics that all engineers are expected to follow. Our technical societies or organizations have similar codes of ethics that each of us agree to follow; and those of us who joined the “Order of the Engineer” also confirmed our agreement to follow the code of ethics contained within our oath of membership. As stated, every professional has an obligation to be ethical and moral as part of their good character. It is a responsibility that all professionals accept for the privilege of licensure or registration. Those who lose their way and fail to fully meet their ethical obligations will lose the respect, trust, and acceptance of the public and their peers.

Professional Engineers are the only group of professionals who have their ethical requirements incorporated into public law. The laws that established professional registration for engineers and surveyors have specific language in which the professions’ ethical standards are established.

Understanding an Engineer’s Responsibilities Under the Code

In my case, the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), Chapter4733, Section 35 “Code of Ethics for Engineers and Surveyors,” covers an engineer’s responsibilities and obligations. (For the purposes of this article, further references to surveyor, surveying, etc., have been left out, and wording has been made gender neutral and changed to flow with such changes.) The “Preamble,” .01, states: “In order to safeguard the life, health, property, and welfare of the public and state of Ohio, to maintain integrity and high standards of skills and practice in the professions of engineering, the following rules of professional conduct, promulgated in accordance with Chapter 4733 of the ORC, shall be binding upon every person holding a certificate of registration as a Professional Engineer.

“An engineer who holds a certificate of registration from the Ohio State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers is charged with having knowledge of the existence of reasonable rules and regulations hereinafter provided for professional conduct as an engineer, and also shall be deemed to be familiar with their several provisions and to understand them. Such knowledge shall encompass the understanding that the practice of engineering is a privilege, as opposed to a right, and the registrant shall be forthright and candid in statements or written responses to the board or its representatives on matters pertaining to professional conduct.”

As a Professional Engineer, there are several key words contained within the ORC: privilege vs. right, and being forthright and candid with the board. It places responsibility clearly on the registrant as a matter of law.

The ORC goes on to define “Integrity” .02: “The engineer is obligated to act with complete integrity in professional matters for each client or employer as a faithful agent; shall be honest and impartial; and shall serve the public, client, and employer with devotion.”

This means that as an engineer, I keep the interests of the public at the forefront in all professional matters, while still serving the interests of the client and my employer.

Next, the ORC lays out an engineer’s obligations to “Public statements and certifications” .04: “(A) The engineer will issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on engineering matters in connection with public policy which are inspired or paid for by an interested party, or parties, unless the engineer has prefaced the remarks by explicitly identifying themselves, by disclosing the identities of the party, or parties, on whose behalf the engineer is speaking, and be revealing the existence of any pecuniary interest they may in the instant matters. (B) The engineer will publicly express no opinion on an engineering subject unless it is founded upon adequate knowledge of the facts in issue, upon background of technical competence in the subject matter, and upon honest conviction of the accuracy and propriety of their testimony. (C) The engineer shall decline to sign and/or seal any form of certification, warranty, or guaranty that (1) Relates to matters beyond their technical competence, (2) Involves matters which are beyond the scope of services for which they were retained, or (3) Relates to engineering work for which the do not have personal professional knowledge and direct supervisory control and responsibility.

“‘Certification’ shall mean a statement signed and/or sealed by an engineer representing that the engineering services addressed therein have been performed, according to the engineer’s knowledge, information, and belief, in accordance with the commonly accepted procedures consistent with applicable standards of practice, and is not a guaranty or warranty, either expressed or implied.”

In other words, the engineer will be honest in their efforts and only express themselves in their areas of expertise. They will avoid all outside influences that might shade their statements, only using their own words without regard to the desires of others.

The ORC obligates the engineer in regard to “Conflict of interest” .05: “(A) The engineer shall conscientiously avoid conflict of interest with the employer or client, but, when unavoidable, the engineer shall forthwith disclose the circumstances to the employer or client. (B) The engineer shall promptly inform the client or employer of any business association, interests, or circumstances which could influence their judgment or the quality of services to the client or employer. (C) The engineer shall not accept compensation, financial or otherwise, from more that one party for services on the same project, or for services pertaining to the same project, unless the circumstances are fully disclosed to, and agreed to, by all interested parties or their duly authorized agents. (D) The engineer shall not solicit or accept financial or other valuable considerations from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their products. (E) The engineer shall not solicit or accept gratuities, directly or indirectly, from contractors, their agents, or other parties dealing with their client or employer in connection with work for which they are responsible. (F) As an elected, retained, or employed public official, an engineer (in the capacity as a public official) shall not review or approve work that was performed by themselves, or under their direction, on behalf of another employer or client.”

As an engineer, we must not accept, solicit, or in any way seek self-enrichment for work that we perform, oversee, or have responsibility for. In other words, as an engineer, our character and honesty shall be above reproach.

The ORC also covers “Solicitation of employment” .06: “(A) The engineer shall not pay, solicit, nor offer, directly or indirectly, any bribe or commission for professional employment with the exception of payment of the usual commission for securing salaried positions through licensed employment agencies. (B) The engineer shall seek professional employment on the basis of qualifications and competence for proper accomplishment of the work. (C) The engineer shall not falsify or permit misrepresentation of academic or professional qualifications and shall not misrepresent or exaggerate the degree of responsibility in or for the subject matter of prior assignments. (D) Brochures or other presentations incident to the solicitation of employment shall not misrepresent pertinent facts concerning employers, employees, associates, joint ventures, or past accomplishments with the intent and purpose of enhancing qualifications and work.”

As an engineer we must not use our position of privilege to advance our status or employment in a less-than-honest manner. We should only present honest and factual information.

The ORC covers “Improper conduct” .07: (A) The engineer shall not sign and/or seal professional work for which they do not have personal professional knowledge and direct supervisory control and responsibility. This is interpreted by the board to mean that an engineer shall not sign and/or seal professional work unless that work was prepared under their supervision and direction. The engineer shall be involved in the project and must be closely involved in the preparation of the work product. (B) The engineer shall not knowingly associate with, or permit the use of their name or firm name in, a business venture by any person or firm which they know, or has reason to believe, is engaging in business or professional practices of a fraudulent or dishonest nature. (C) If the engineer has knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm is guilty of violating any provisions of Chapter 4733 of the Revised Code, or any of these rules of professional conduct, they shall present this information to the board in writing. (D) If a Professional Engineer is found guilty of a felony or had their registration revoked or suspended by another jurisdiction, the Professional Engineer shall notify the board in writing within 60 days.”

Engineering, to a great extent, is self-regulating. As a Professional Engineer I have a responsibility to report the inappropriate behavior of other or myself to the board (another one of those characters attributes).

The ORC covers “Other jurisdictions” .08: “Conviction of a felony without restoration of civil rights, or the revocation, voluntary surrender, or suspension of a Professional Engineer’s license by another jurisdiction, if for a cause which in the state of Ohio would constitute a violation of ORC Chapter 4733 or these rules, shall be grounds for a charge of violation of these rules.”

This requires the engineer to follow the same ethical and moral rules in all areas of their practice, regardless of the state in which a violation occurred (character and honesty).

The ORC also covers “Records” .09: “Each registrant or certificate of authorization holder shall keep a true and correct record in the English language of all of the business transactions in the registrant’s or holder’s office relevant to enforcement of Chapter 4733 of the ORC. Such records shall be available at all reasonable hours for inspection and copying by the Ohio State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers.

“Each registrant or license shall cooperate with the board in its investigation of complaints or possible violations of Chapter 4733 of the ORC.  This cooperation shall include responding timely to written communications from the board, providing information or documents requested within 30 days of the date on which the communication was mailed, and appearing before the board or its designee upon request.”

The Ultimate Goal

All Professional Engineers have similar obligations placed upon them by their state’s licensing law. It is something that every engineer should read and remain current with. As a Professional Engineer, I am granted a privilege, and with privilege comes responsibilities and obligations; nothing is free. These obligations can and in many cases do lead to ethical and moral conflicts. It is one’s character and moral compass that must be used to keep us, personally, on track in meeting our most important obligation: the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other obligations.

While not subject to the ORC, unlicensed design professionals would do well to hold themselves to the same ethical standards in their activities. Placing the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all is ultimately the goal for all players in the built environment.

If you have not recently reviewed your licensure laws or did not really understand your obligations under that laws, refresh your knowledge and get a copy of your state’s law. It is well worth the read to better understand your obligations and responsibilities in exchange for the privilege of professional registration.

David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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