Instilling Ethics within Your Team

Ethics is an important topic for all of us, and when issues arise, it is a serious matter. If I were to have an ethical violation in one state, all the other states where I am licensed would be notified, and there might be penalties to face in multiple locations. Over the past several years, I have presented the topic to various groups, including ACEC Alabama, Alabama Section ITE, and the Alabama Department of Transportation.

I have personally been interested in the topic for a long time, and I learned a lot from my grandmother’s character and ethics. In my first engineering job, I worked for a company with ethical issues, and I chose to leave that firm because of the things I was seeing. Looking back, that was the best career decision I have ever made. 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 23 states where I am licensed as a professional engineer. Each of these states and organizations has its own code of ethics. The rules can change and are often updated, so it is important to revisit them regularly. One of the points I always make in training is that each licensed professional is responsible for knowing his or her ethical responsibilities.

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

  • Practicing without a license – Even though I am based in Alabama, if I am going to work on a Tennessee project, I must have an individual P.E. license to practice in that state. Our firm also must be licensed in Tennessee. Obviously, that can sometimes make things more complicated or cause problems for engineers who want to do a job but are not properly licensed.
  • Increase in desire for bidding – Engineers and surveyors should be chosen for projects through a qualification-based selection (QBS) process. We have seen organizations attempting to get engineers to bid for work to select the lowest bidder. Bidding engineering services means we would knowingly compete based on price. That is a problem because, according to our profession’s ethical 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 essential because it focuses on selecting the most qualified and competent engineer for the project and protects the public’s health, safety, and welfare. Most states require QBS for public work. Alabama requires QBS for public and private work. For additional information, visit the QBS FAQ’s on the Alabama Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors’ website.
  • Conflict of interest – We want to make sure that there are no potential conflicts of interest between the parties we are 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 have the following advice:

  • Know your responsibility — As professional engineers, each of us must know and stay current on our state ethics laws (Board of Licensure and State Ethics Commission) 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 to understand the process we are going through and make sure we follow our profession’s code of ethics.
  • Designate an ethics officer — From a corporate standpoint, it is beneficial to have one central person stay abreast of the requirements and educate staff about ethical issues. If you are not sure about something, the ethics officer is someone to talk with who will provide advice.
  • Maintain continuing education – It is so important to educate your staff with regular ethics training. In training sessions, it is helpful to put the class into small groups and give them a case study 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. For engineers, this means that our primary obligation is the public’s 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 interests.

Here is 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