1 May 2005
Engineering ethics in a business world
By Ellen Fussell
What if you discovered your company was basing its products on programs owned by other companies, without obtaining licenses?
Engineers are familiar with the engineering code of ethics, but sometimes situations arise that might leave an engineer wondering how to apply that code, situations that could also fit into a business code of ethics. And since engineers are hard pressed these days to join the business savvy, one professor thinks it's time to remind engineers of what their responsibilities are to the public.
Joe Herkert, a North Carolina State University associate professor of Science, Technology, and Society, has developed a course to give engineers the tools they need in engineering ethical conundrums.
The most important thing engineers need to know is they have ethical responsibilities as individuals and to the engineering profession as a whole, Herkert said. "The most important one is commitment to public health, safety, and welfare," he said. But there are other responsibilities, such as avoiding conflicts of interest, knowing how to identify ethical issues, and how to act on them. Some issues actually overlap into the business ethics field, particularly issues like accepting gifts from clients, Herkert said. "But a lot of issues ... have to do with ethical responsibilities engineers have by virtue of being a professional."
An engineer may be involved in the design of a product that poses a risk to workers or to the public. "Let's say you're involved in designing an automobile, and there are certain safety features you're expected to include, such as breaking ability, airbag operation, and the car's ability to sustain collisions," he said. There are certain expectations the public has when they purchase a product that they'll be safe.
Of course standards and professional norms go into the design. "And usually these are taken care of," Herkert said. "But on occasion an engineer might have doubts about an issue in the design of a product relating to public safety. Sometimes this will conflict with the economic imperatives of the organization," he said. "So you'll have a conflict between the engineer's professional responsibility and his responsibilities to the company he works for."
What if you see a faulty air bag and your company refuses to fix it? Herkert said the engineer should discuss the issue with colleagues inside the company or professional colleagues in professional societies first to make sure they're right. "It's always best to try to address the problem internally," he said. "More and more, companies are actually developing channels for bringing issues like this to the forefront. Sometimes they call in an ethics officer or ombudsperson," he said. Employees can also go outside the normal reporting channels. And if he isn't getting satisfaction from the company, that's when he needs to make a decision to take the complaint to another level. "This depends on a lot of factors, such as how serious the danger is and how likely it is there'll be a resolution," Herkert said. "Obviously going outside the company poses risks to the individual. Ultimately, the engineering profession needs to step up and provide support for engineers when they're put in a situation like that."
Why learn more about ethics?
Engineers have responsibilities, and it's better to acknowledge that and be prepared to deal with issues than to go along and ignore that, Herkert said. The biggest reason is because you may find yourself in a situation that you have personal qualms about. You may even find yourself in a situation where you feel your company is at risk even though the managers might not agree with you. You may be putting the reputation of the engineering profession at risk. Or you could even face criminal charges yourself.
In one real-life case, an engineer found the company he worked for had been testing a component they were selling to the government that didn't meet the specifications of the contract. "While he felt the test his company was using was actually a better test, he knew it was in violation of the contract," Herkert said. The employee suggested his company reveal they found a better test and negotiate a change in the contract. When he met resistance, he simply resigned from the company. "He could have gone to the customer," Herkert said. "But because safety wasn't involved, he didn't think it was worth a big confrontation."
In this case, someone else reported the company, and the first engineer had to testify.
Although he cooperated fully, he was still indicted along with other people in the company. Eventually he was acquitted, but not before he spent a lot of money and time. "The lesson here is even when you think walking away is the best solution, you can't always assume it's someone else's problem," Herkert said.
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