Ethics in Engineering

Posted by on Feb 25, 2014

It may be true that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but when it comes to engineering and ethics, what happens in Alabama doesn’t necessarily stay in Alabama.

Ethics are an important topic for all of us, and when issues arise, it’s a serious matter. If I were to have an ethical violation in one state, all the other states where I’m licensed would be notified, and there might be penalties to face in both locations. Because ethics can pose such serious issues that we all need to be reminded about, over the past few months, I’ve done eight presentations on the topic to various groups.

I have personally been interested in the topic for a long time, and I learned a lot about character and ethics from my grandmother. In my very first engineering job, I worked for a company where there were ethical issues, and I chose to leave that firm because of the things I was seeing. Things were much different when I came to Sain Associates, and before becoming President and CEO, I served as our Corporate Ethics Officer. I still fill that role today.

I try my best to keep up with the laws and code of ethics for each of the 21 states where I’m licensed as a professional engineer (P.E.) and for our professional organizations, such as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). Each of these states and organizations has their own code of ethics. The rules can change and are often updated, so it’s important to revisit them regularly.

In every profession, not just engineering, there are many ethical issues that can come up when doing business. Here are some of the more common situations we’ve seen in recent years.

  1. Practicing without a license. Even though I am based in Alabama, if I’m going to do a project in Georgia, I have to have an individual P.E. license to practice in that state. Our firm also has to be licensed in Georgia. Obviously, that can sometimes make things more difficult or cause problems for engineers who want to do a job but aren’t properly licensed.
  2. Increase in desire for bidding. Engineers are to be chosen for projects through a qualification based selection(QBS)process. But in the last few years, possibly due to the slow economy, we have seen organizations attempting to get engineers to bid for work so they can choose the lowest bidder. Bidding engineering servicesmeans we would knowingly compete based on price. That’s a problem because according to our profession’sethical standards of practice, we are to be chosen based solely on our qualifications. It is unethical for engineers to participate in a bidding process for pursuing work. Price is negotiated after the selection is made.  The QBS process is important because it keeps the focus on selecting the most qualified and competent engineer for the project.  That focus on competency protects the client and the public.
  3. Conflict of interest. We want to make sure that there are no potential conflicts of interest between the partieswe’re representing and working to serve. The key to avoiding this is having open and immediate communication whenever a potential conflict arises.

So as Sain’s Corporate Ethics Officer, what have I learned when it comes to handling ethical practice issues? I definitely have some advice.

  • Know your responsibility — As professional engineers, each of us has a responsibility to know and stay current on our state ethics laws and our professional organizations’ ethical standards.
  • Communicate with competitors — There have been many times when I have called competitors to talk through situations. The goal is for us to understand the process we’re both going through and make sure we follow  theethics standards for our profession.
  • Designate an ethics officer — From a corporate standpoint, it’s very helpful to have one central person to stay abreast of the requirements and educate  staff about ethical issues. If you’re not sure about something, the ethics officer is someone to talk with who will provide advice.
  • Maintain continuing education – It’s so important to educate your staff with regular ethics training. We do this annually at Sain, and I’ve been involved with ethics training for the Alabama Section Institute of Transportation Engineers (ALSITE) and others. In training sessions, it’s helpful to put the class into small groups and give them a case study on ethics to talk through.

When you boil it all down, we want to run our business the right way and in an ethical manner. Most people do. Forengineers, this means that our primary obligation is the public health, safety and welfare. That obligation must come first in every decision we make. The client’s interests and the profession’s interests come next. The last priority is our own personal interests.

Here’s one of my favorite ethics quotes and one that my grandmother taught me well: “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who walks crooked paths will be found out.” Proverbs 10:9

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states. 

1 Comment

  1. Deepa Bhate
    March 18, 2014

    Jim,
    Well said on the Ethics article. it needs to be discussed more often. I was in a similar situation and choose to leave. It is very easy for your conscience to stop talking to you if you give in to the easy choice that is unethical. It is a slippery slope.
    Deepa

    Reply

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