Professional Ethics Statements

Cross-posted from Talking Traffic. Please leave comments over there.

Stack of Documents
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Ethics Statements
There was a question posted on one of the Traffic Engineering listservs I’m a part of that sent me out to read (again) the various Canons of Ethics in the professional societies I’m associated with.

I have two opinions about these various statements of professional ethics: One, they’re absolutely necessary to maintain our profession as a profession and two, they’re amazingly over detailed.

There is a lot of good stuff in those documents1,2,3,4, but it brings to mind a saying which, paraphrased, says “If you have to write down your ethical standards, you’re already lost.”

For the record, I don’t agree with that statement. At least, not for broad overarching ethics guidelines. For example, all the engineering ethics statements that I’m associated with begin with:

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties

That is an excellent statement that sums up the entire raison d’etre of the Professional Engineer. Every young engineer, whether they intend to become a Professional Engineer or not should know and be able to quote that statement.

Other Canons, as they’re generally called, which are consistent between the various documents are briefly summarized as:

  • Act in a faithful manner to your clients
  • Act in a professional manner to your competitors
  • Don’t break laws
  • Be a good engineer5

Getting back to my earlier statement about how I think the various documents were too detailed, it depends on your perspective. There are two basic times in an engineer’s life when these docs should be reviewed and the ethical standards serve different purposes depending on which phase you’re in:

Just starting out
You, as a beginning engineer, might not realize that certain activities are considered unethical by your professional community. The one I always bring up as an example is moonlighting6. It is unethical to practice moonlighting because the engineer in question is able to underbid a non-moonlighting engineer, thereby depriving him or her of work. This falls under “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” 2

Another basic example of unethical practice which may not be obvious to the beginning engineer is allowing “authority” to dictate your professional judgment. “Engineers shall advise their employers or clients when, as a result of their studies, they believe a project will not be successful.”1 Seems obvious, right? However it’s easy for a person to be persuaded to shade their conclusions or recommendations because that’s what the client wants.

The difficulties of beginning engineers is broadened the cut back of ethics classes in colleges nationwide. Ethics is most often an elective class, not a requirement. This leads to engineers being required to learn their professional responsibilities on the job, which might dump them into court. This is why professional societies need detailed ethics statements.

Experienced Engineer
The experienced engineer does not need specific examples of unethical behavior. She will have already gone through the learning process mentioned above and will need only refreshers of what needs to be watched for. To that end, I heartily congratulate the State of Texas’ Board of Professional Engineers for requiring that 1 hour of the required yearly continuing education be in ethics7. Knowing the broader aspects of what is a required activity or what she is required to avoid is paramount to every engineer, but the experienced engineer does not want to spend time reading a document that appears to have been drafted by lawyers.1 That is why professional societies need a short ethics statements. Preferably with bullet points. Everybody likes bullet points.

A Better Document
You’ll notice that I have now called for both a brief and detailed ethics statement. Which brings me to the call to arms for committees who are slated to update their various ethics documents: Leverage the two-tier approach and use the web. I think that of the documents listed in footnotes 1 through 4, ASCE gets it best by listing their seven canons right up at the top of the document, then following up with “Guidelines to Practice Under the Fundamental Canons of Ethics”2.

Future ethics documents should be web-based, with internal links (perhaps even wikis). Five to 10 bold statements, starting with the most important one concerning public welfare, and then deeper discussion behind the links of what is an acceptable/unacceptable action under particular scenarios. I’ll draw a parallel to the United States Golf Association which lists their Rules of Golf, plus has a separate section for Decisions8 and follows up with an online quiz to test your knowledge of the nitty gritty details.

This is what I’ll push for if I’m ever on one of those committees. This will allow experienced engineers to review the guidelines quickly and for new engineers to deeply learn what is meant by “unfair competition” and other important details.

1: Institute of Transportation Engineers Canon of Ethics for Members
2: American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics
3: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society Policy: Ethics
4: IEEE Code of Ethics
5: The various documents I’m referencing go into more detail about what all that entails, on a “year to year” basis. I was going to say “day to day” but it’s not so detailed as to list specific no-nos.
6: Moonlighting is the practice of cost-competing for extra work while employed in a full-time job elsewhere. The moonlighting engineer can underbid a competitor due to having their overhead expenses taken care of by their employer. Moonlighting is not unethical always, it depends on the circumstances. I’m primarily aware of this ethical standard due to my time as a mechanical engineer where work was less likely to be awarded on Qualifications standards.
7: Although I will chastise them for allowing “(d) A minimum of 1 PDH per renewal period must be in the area of professional ethics, roles and responsibilities of professional engineering, or review of the Texas Engineering Practice Act and Board Rules [ed. emphasis].” Reviewing board rules isn’t a strong indicator of ethical practices, in my opinion.
8: A Decision is the official determination of a questionable rules situation by the USGA.

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