I’ve sadly had to resort to ethical standards at several points in my (still brief) career. The odds are that you too will be faced with an ethical dilemma during engineering practice. The purpose of this post is to A) establish the ethical standards governing our field, B) present a procedure for applying those ethical standards, C) applying the procedure through several examples I’ve directly encountered, and D) provide a means of last resort.

The ASME Code of Ethics

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is the society governing the mechanical engineering profession and controls membership and associations. ASME has a site walking you through processes for navigating ethical dilemmas. The most seminal component though is the ASME Code of Ethics which I summarize below. I usually require everyone to write these down on paper in the hopes for easy recall at a later time:

The Fundamental Principles

Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:
I. using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
II. being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity their clients (including their
employers) and the public; and
III. striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession.

The Fundamental Canons

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the
    performance of their professional duties.
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence; they shall build
    their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly
    with others.
  3. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and shall provide opportunities for the professional and ethical development of those engineers under their supervision.
  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest.
  5. Engineers shall respect the proprietary information and intellectual property rights of others, including charitable organizations and professional societies in the engineering field.
  6. Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations.
  7. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner and shall avoid any conduct which brings discredit upon the profession.
  8. Engineers shall consider environmental impact and sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
  9. Engineers shall not seek ethical sanction against another engineer unless there is good reason to do so under the relevant codes, policies and procedures governing that engineer’s ethical conduct.
  10. Engineers who are members of the Society shall endeavor to abide by the Constitution, By-Laws and Policies of the Society, and they shall disclose knowledge of any matter involving another member’s alleged violation of this Code of Ethics or the Society’s Conflicts of Interest Policy in a prompt, complete and truthful manner to the chair of the Ethics Committee.
Procedure for Ethical Analysis

Remembering the Principles and Canons is one matter, applying them is another. Several leading engineering ethics textbooks advocate a procedure very similar to that for defining and solving engineering problems. The steps:

  1. Define the system being studied (i.e. the people, resources, and technologies involved) including what is known, unknown, & assumed.
  2. Establish precedent, including related prior cases for background, if there is a gap then proceed with the analysis.
  3. Apply applicable laws, codes, and standards.
  4. Conduct a Fault Tree Analysis (FTA) for how the problem ultimately occurred.
  5. Develop a solution.
Examples I’ve directly encountered

The examples below are in story format with the text outlined in blue with discussion following.

I once knew an administrator who still conducted research in their lab. One day, a post-doc accidentally mixed two substances in the fume hood, leading to an explosion that destroyed the hood. The administrator did not report the incident to others within their unit as they were the only required chain of reporting in the unit. Later, a young faculty member in the same unit had a similar incident that destroyed another fume hood. 

I learned of this incident when my institution was under pressure by the provost to reduce safety incidents and I was on my department’s safety committee and had not heard about it. I was mad. This same administrator, who was a registered Professional Engineer, had threatened subordinates with ‘consequences’ if safety incidents were not reported. Is this an ethical dilemma? Do I need to report this behavior to a professional society or board? I started working through the process. I defined the system as the administrator. I listed knowns, unknowns, and assumptions about the system. I moved on to the establishment of precedent and intent, and applied the ethical standards above.

The solution boiled down to this — Canon 1 is satisfied as the administrator was actively trying to promote a safe culture. They were not required to report this information to others in their unit by the system they were in as they were the only required person to report to. There was no intent to harm, which is exceedingly difficult to prove, by the administrator. When you continue on to Canon 9, I did not have a ‘good’ reason, supported by direct evidence, based on the codes and standards to pursue professional sanction. Years later I discovered that the incident was reported within the institution and had occurred years before it was brought to my attention. I now know why Canon 9 is there. It’s all too common for conflicted professionals to make ethical violation accusations in a punitive way, which ultimately harms people and the profession.

I once knew a student with literally perfect grades. When the rest of us would get an assignment, this person would never work on it with us and would say, “Oh I’m going to work on it later tonight and should have something tomorrow.” They would come in with the assignment done perfectly, every time. This was amazing. The instructor for the class was well known to make all of their own problems and was wickedly good. One day I was frustrated about an exam grade and asked the student if I could see their perfect exam. One of the problems was to draw curves describing a temperature distribution based on flow conditions. It was a qualitative graphical response — the exact position of the lines didn’t matter as long as the curvature changed in the correct ways at certain positions along the line. Yet, the student had erased the line multiple times to make it look exactly like the solution key. I asked the student why they did that when the position of the lines didn’t matter and that they had the correct curvature in lines they erased. The student responded with, “I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right until the last.”

This seemed really fishy. The system is defined as the student, who happened to be a registered professional engineer who had returned to school. There were too many unknowns and assumptions though to solve the problem. So I waited. One day the instructor made a mistake on their solution key. I knew it was a mistake because I’d just spent the prior three days convincing the student in question  of the mistake, who stubbornly would not admit that they had a mistake. This was my opportunity for an experiment. I went to the instructor and told them how a number of students, excellent students, had made the exact same, non random mistake. I asked the instructor where they stored homework or exam information. The instructor said there was a shared lab drive only open to their research lab where everything was backed up. I asked the instructor to not back up their assignments and quizzes for the remainder of the semester. Which the instructor agreed to.

The result of the experiment was shocking. It was clear that the student had no idea how to apply the basic information and concepts of the course, or how to program the solutions that we had been working on for several months. This immediately became apparent in the grades. The solution though was troubling as this was a case of academic dishonesty negatively affecting the profession. It is exceedingly difficulty to present evidence of cheating in manners like this. The key mistake of the student though was that the instructor happened to be a key member of their thesis committee, which did not bode well for the thesis defense.

A few years back some of the students in my laboratory decided it was their dream to start a small business to commercialize technologies invented in my laboratory. They asked me to be a founding member of the company. The university awarded me grants to commercialize technology through the company. However, the university’s Conflict of Interest (COI) board identified significant issues with my involvement in the company and threatened to bring in the WSU Attorney General (AG) if I did not mitigate the conflict.

This one was a real mess. Instead of me trying to navigate someone else’s ethical dilemma, I was faced with navigating my own. The issue was that the students in my lab that started the company were under my direct oversight, which meant that if something bad happened with the company, I could use my authority to punish them during their thesis defense or in some other way. Note that this is why you can’t hire students from your labs or classes for jobs outside the university. Now I understand why Canon 4: ‘avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest’ exists. I had to remove myself from the company until the students were able to graduate from the university.

I was sitting in my office one day when the phone rang. The person calling me said they were representing national technology advocacy groups, but they were also interested in investing in my lab and research. They said they would visit my lab for three days the next week. For those of you that don’t understand the significance of this, you pretty much have to fly to Pullman, and it’s not cheap. Upon meeting this person they said, “Look, I don’t have business cards, I function like an unregistered lobbyist. You’re going to have to learn to trust your gut and instincts with me.” Warning flags raised, I went through the network to try to check the story, several friends in the area knew of this person and didn’t have negative things to say. The intent was positive — promote the technologies in my area to regional elected representatives and company consortiums. I asked my superiors if this was ok, and they said that as long as I wasn’t entering into fiscal commitments, and the efforts helped the community, then there was little risk. This person knew how to work the political system! I would see them on stage with heads of major international companies, in political offices, and started receiving more calls from key people to try to get stuff happening. During one visit this person lost their credit card and asked me to pick up a tab. I’d noticed a pattern. They always paid with cash and would never give me firm commitments on when they were coming and going. Eventually during one visit, I’d gotten them drunk enough where they made a slip up. This person’s credit card was lost again! But this time it supposedly had never happened before. There was a brief charade back at the hotel where they looked through my car for the credit card….

Wow. System — person whom I have no evidence that anything they’ve told me thus far was true. Knowns, unknowns, and assumptions — lots of unknowns and assumptions, the only thing I know is that their stories between visits were inconsistent in critically important ways, and that they likely always flew standby because they knew someone in an airline that got them free flights. I really had little to no evidence of any kind. Apply the laws codes and standards — Canon 6: Engineers shall only associate with reputable persons or organizations. Now I know why Canon 6 is there. The problem was how to apply a solution. Fortunately, I’d avoided any attempts by this person to drag key tech out of my lab or enter into any business partnerships or agreements.

I had recommended this person to a few colleagues. I got on the phone to my friends and explained what I knew and simply said I could no longer recommend the person, while being careful not to make any false accusations or extensions. That’s when some of the stories started coming back. This person would setup someone locally to get a big state, company, or organization to fund a project. Some work would start, but then never finish and the money would always be gone.

Around this time is when a friend taught me the basics of “The Long Con“. In the Long Con the “Grifter” is the person at the heart of the con who is targeting the “Mark” — someone with something the Grifter wants, usually money. The Grifter sets up a “Shill” or someone with no apparent connection to the con that convinces the Mark to go along with the Grifter’s plan. I was being setup as a Shill, however whether the intent was to deceive or harm is exceedingly difficult to nail down. This person had ostensibly positive goals of furthering the technology in my area.

Regardless, I proceeded to BIFF — Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. I thanked the person for trying to help the community and field but ceased to respond to any other communications. Eventually they moved on and I haven’t heard from them since — which add credence to my hypothesis that they moved on to a different Shill and Mark. But I have no evidence to bring legal complaints or of a crime that was committed. Just a very scary situation that was narrowly avoided.

This situation helped to reaffirm what the primary resource of an engineer is. This person was certainly not after my money, they were after my credibility. Mistakes can hurt your credibility. Falsification of results or knowingly entering into fraudulent business engagements can end your credibility. Even Professional Engineers can act unprofessionally. But like with the safety near-miss event I went through, how I handled the situation actually helped my credibility. I’d narrowly escaped, informed everyone else who was affected, who now knew the level of sophistication involved and that I’d learned a valuable lesson.

A Last Resort

As you can see from the above examples. There are many ways that you can run into ethical dilemmas. But almost all of them are difficult to pursue official ethical sanction or engage law enforcement over. These ethical standards are best used for defense as opposed to offense. The professional cons likely know these laws and rules as well as you do. The same goes for abusive administrators or bosses trying to goose performance metrics to quickly advance to the next stage of their careers.

You have to protect yourself and your professional credibility.

As a last resort, our federal government offers an official out: Whistleblowing. When an employee finds his or her conscience unable to accept the actions of the organization and tells the world about them, typically via the media. Employees who blow the whistle on their superiors are protected by Federal Law. If they are fired or otherwise retaliated against for whistle blowing, they can sue. Note that this should be used only as a last resort as this is going to be a mess, and you have to have exceedingly convincing evidence and intent, which are both very difficult and risky to possess. Here is the flyer to the federal Whistleblowing website.