Ethics and Engineering
As engineers, we face a set of unique challenges. We create the things that make the world work, and without us, people wouldn’t be able to travel, eat, work, or live in the ways they are familiar with. 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 around, but also to satisfy the people whose money is helping to make it spin.
However, engineering ethics is more than just a backburner issue – it is the 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 our mortgages, and build a life that sustains and fulfills us. That is why the following statement holds so much weight and is why it reinforces the idea of adhering to the principles of engineering ethics: The public must trust you in order for you to be able to work. That’s the long and short of it. To be successful, and to continue to provide for your family, the things you engineer must work consistently and ensure the safety of the lives that they touch.
Not many industries can so quickly be dismantled by a public disaster as engineering. Consider the space shuttle Challenger. The 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 occurred, the result still had an effect, and that’s why we’re here today.
So what is engineering ethics? The following statements summarize the principles of engineering ethics that were laid out by the founding societies of the Engineer’s Council for Professional Development in 1932.
Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
- Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
- Perform services only in areas of their competence.
- Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
- Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
- Avoid deceptive acts.
- Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of the profession.
Many of these principles are meant to protect public trust. For example, upholding safety, health, and welfare ensures the public is 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, show integrity, avoid deception, and demonstrate honor.
Explore this issue further with our 2-PDH Course: Ethics & Standards of Professional Conduct for Wisconsin Engineers
Ethical Professional Conduct
As mentioned previously, our jobs put tremendous strain on us from many sides, so there are obvious reasons you might be tempted to break the established ethical principles. For example, 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 an honest report, or you might cut safety features from a design in order to please a thrifty investor.
But despite the occasional temptation to loosen the ethical standards you hold, it is essential to stand firm in demonstrating engineering ethics. To do so, professionalism must be a high priority. This is more than just adhering to a set of principles, but a way of living our lives. Professionalism refers back to the idea of leadership as service and service as our priority for our clients. When we enter into a contract, we conduct ourselves with an obligation to our client to make not just the project, but also the experience, the best it can be.
Your Role as an Engineer
We can ensure this kind of good work and professionalism by investing in leadership training and creating a culture of work through service that can help to get managers in the right mindset to be the example for everyone that they lead. Ensuring that our leaders understand the position of leadership is an important first step. 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. As a manager, if you are serving your team members, trust begins with ensuring they can do their best work and focusing on their needs to help them reach their highest potential.
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. You must deliver necessary information between teams, clearly and concisely, so that the principles of ethics are being met. 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.
Continuing Education for Professional Engineers
At times, ethics can seem obvious and perhaps not worth the time spent on continuing education on the subject, until you consider that the entire industry supports a world that trusts the ground beneath their feet because engineers say it will hold them.
We’ve all learned, over the course of our careers, how quickly this industry moves. We live in a technological age, and part of our adherence to the first principle of ethics in engineering is making sure we maintain our education. Without keeping up with continuing education, public health and safety suffers.
Keeping up with the continuing education units (CEUs) required for license renewal cannot be an afterthought, a chore, or something you do not take seriously. It must be a priority. Acquiring CEUs protects the people we serve and is a critical part of upholding the standard of ethics and fostering the public trust we depend on.
In addition, managers should sit down with each of their engineers, 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 and trust. Firms that can afford it, should consider offering CEU training from within the firm itself, making it easier and more accessible for employees to be the best they can be.
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.
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. 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 deliver to the highest standards.
It sounds simple to say that ethics are the most important thing to consider – but in the industry of engineering, we cannot live without them.