Ethical principles in engineering are vital in protecting the public. Without these principles, we’d be up to our necks in disaster.
As practicing engineers, we shoulder a massive responsibility with the work we do. In this article, I’ll dish out the 6 ethical principles we need to live by, and I’ll spice things up with some real-life examples.
Important Note: This chat applies to all engineering disciplines. Whether you hold a PE license or not, no one’s off the hook.
Now, I might miss some industry-specific guidelines. If that happens, do your homework and check out the rules for your field. And for extra insights, swing by the National Society of Professional Engineers.
What’s even considered ethical?
Before diving into our 6 ethical principles in engineering, let’s get clear on what ethics means.
Google says ethics are:
“Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.”
Sounds simple, right? Well, buckle up, because it can get bumpy. Who decides what’s ethical and what’s not?
Take an oil pipeline through a populated area, for example. Seems sketchy, but what if it cuts down on pollution and transportation accidents? Or what about engineering for military designs? You see, ethics isn’t always a black-and-white deal.
But let’s cut to the chase. I’m not here to debate the ethics of ideas. I want to focus on the ethics of engineering – how we, as practicing engineers, should behave. We’re talking less about the final product and more about the methods used to create it.
#1 Keep the public safe and sound
Our top priority as engineers is to keep people safe and healthy, no matter what.
Imagine this: Your family is boarding an airplane that isn’t safe. That’s a horrifying thought, right? Sure, it’s an extreme case, but a shoddy airplane design could lead to catastrophe.
And it’s not just the big stuff. Our everyday lives are filled with potential hazards we don’t even think about. Picture these scenarios:
- Your baby’s crib collapsing while they snooze
- Dodgy electrical wiring turning your home into a fireball
- Your laptop battery going kaboom during your favorite show
- Your washing machine blasting off while you wait for your laundry
Key guidelines to follow
No unlawful practice: Don’t even think about getting involved in illegal engineering activities, whether it’s just one rogue engineer or a giant corporation at play. Remember, you’ve got a moral compass, so stick to it!
Blow that whistle: See something sketchy going on? Don’t be afraid to report it to the right people. No one’s above the law, and keeping the public safe is what matters most.
Pick your pals wisely: Watch out for who’s using your name and title. Keep your distance from dodgy businesses because your reputation’s on the line, and you don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking something’s safe when it’s not.
Stick to the rules: Follow all local, state, and national regulations, as they’re there to keep people from getting hurt. If you spot any shortcuts in someone’s work, speak up straight away.
Ever heard someone say, “If the city reviewer doesn’t catch it, we’re golden”? That kind of talk is unacceptable. Cutting corners to save a few bucks isn’t cool, and breaking little rules only paves the way for breaking bigger ones.
Overruled judgment: If a third-party agency tries to overrule your judgment, let your client and boss know ASAP, especially if it could put lives or property in danger.
Release of information: Some info from clients and employers must stay private, like data, processes, facts, and communication records. Only spill the beans if you’ve got the green light from the people who own the info. After all, loose lips can put safety at risk—just think about leaked computer security details putting government websites in jeopardy.
#2 Provide your best quality work at all times
Hey, we’re all human, right? Even engineers get tired or slip up sometimes. But to truly excel, tackle every project as if it’s your big break. Put the same heart and soul into the small stuff as you would the big leagues.
You might wonder why that matters. Well, even the simplest project can snowball into a massive issue if it’s not engineered right. Picture a shoddy electrical circuit in a tiny panel sparking a wildfire in a California forest!
Key guidelines to follow
Confidence in your work: Bring your A-game every time, so you can be proud of your designs. If you don’t believe in your work, how can anyone else?
Remember, people trust your products with their lives. Strive to create top-notch work that earns their confidence.
Accuracy and rigor: Give every challenge your all. If something’s new to you, don’t shy away from research or asking for help.
#3 Provide services in the area of your expertise
The final 1% is the hardest part of engineering design! That’s when your unique skills shine, and you can’t just reuse old ideas.
Sure, you’re a whiz in your field, but that doesn’t make you a jack-of-all-trades. A structural engineer might not ace the last 1% in another domain. Focus on what you know best and do it well.
Important Note: This principle doesn’t mean you can’t expand your horizons or take on new projects. Just lean on the right support system to guide you.
Key guidelines to follow
Project selection: Don’t bite off more than you can chew, even if the money’s tempting. It’s like hiring a plumber who says, “I’ll fix your pipes,” only to find out they’re clueless about plumbing and actually an electrician. Next thing you know, a pipe they fixed bursts.
Sign-offs: Don’t sign off on work outside your expertise, especially if you didn’t manage or work on it directly.
Your signature carries weight and can mislead others. If you sign off on someone else’s work, they’ll assume you did it or at least reviewed and approved it. They’ll trust it’s safe since you’re the expert who should know best.
Think of it like a doctor signing off on a prescription. Most people don’t question it—they trust the doctor knows best.
#4 Be honest and truthful
Let’s chat about why honesty and truthfulness are the bread and butter of engineering! These traits should be as vital to an engineer as a trusty toolbox is to a handyman.
Picture this: a team of engineers, each with their own unique skills, working on a project. The lead engineer finishes the design but isn’t quite sure about a part. So he asks engineer #2, the go-to person for that particular area, to check it out.
But engineer #2 is feeling a bit lazy and only gives the design a cursory glance. He assumes the lead engineer did a decent job, so why bother with checking calculations and standards?…
When the lead engineer asks how the review went, engineer #2 fibs and says he scrutinized everything. The lead engineer trusts engineer #2 and submits the design.
This kind of dishonesty and carelessness can cause design failures. Engineer #2 could’ve just told the truth, but that would’ve made him look lazy and unreliable. So, he hid his shortcomings through dishonesty.
And that was just internal deceit among colleagues. Lying to the public? That’s a whole other ball game!
Key guidelines to follow
Technical opinions: As a pro, people will hang onto your every word. Only weigh in on topics you’re truly knowledgeable about.
You might think your opinion doesn’t count for much, like when you casually predict who’ll win the Super Bowl. But as an engineer, folks will take your words as gospel and spread them around.
Outside influence: Stay neutral in all your communication, including statements, critiques, and endorsements. Don’t let anyone bribe you to bend the truth. When you do speak on behalf of an interested party, make sure everyone involved knows who that party is.
Conflict of interest: Don’t let third parties sway your decisions. For example, if a vendor offers you a free design in exchange for specifying their equipment for the project.
Another example is accepting a bribe from a contractor who wants you to make decisions that could hurt your client for their own gain.
Objectiveness: Stay objective in all forms of communication, including statements and court testimonies. The ethical principles of engineering apply everywhere, so you can’t cherry-pick when to use them.
Honesty: Don’t lie or stretch the truth about anything engineering-related. Honesty might cause short-term hiccups, but it’ll save you from bigger headaches later on.
Communication: If you’re unsure about something, say so. Otherwise, people might assume you know and act on your words. As an expert, it’s crucial to be clear about what you do and don’t know.
Likewise, own your mistakes. All engineers mess up sometimes, and it’s vital to let everyone know as soon as possible. You never know how it might affect others.
#5 Always have your client’s and employer’s back
When you’re contracted with someone, make sure you’ve got their back by delivering top-notch service and steering them away from poor choices. And don’t forget, loose lips sink ships! Keep mum about confidential info that’s not yours to share.
Sadly, some rogue engineers out there steal proprietary info from their companies, either to sell it or use it to launch their own businesses. These engineers usually get caught or end up behind bars.
Key guidelines to follow
Consent: Keep all project-related info hush-hush. If you need to share proprietary details, ask the owner for the green light first.
For example, if you need to tell a supplier about a facility’s operations to specify equipment, check with the facility owner you’re working for first.
Transparency: If conflicts of interest are lurking, spill the beans upfront. This way, everyone involved will know the nitty-gritty of all relationships, including how an outsider might sway your judgment.
One-party compensation: Don’t take payments from two different parties for the same project, as that creates a conflict of interest.
Imagine getting paid by both a facility owner and their chosen contractor. While the client wants flawless construction, the contractor wants a speedy job with fat profits. If you need compensation from more than one party, ensure everyone involved is in the loop and on board.
Playing both sides: Don’t sign up for contract terms with existing conflicts of interest. For instance, if someone from your company serves on a government board, you can’t accept a contract from them. Though the contract might seem like a breeze, it’s bound to cause headaches later on.
#6 Avoid deceptiveness
Faking credentials is like cheating on a test with the answer key – it might feel like a shortcut, but you’ll eventually get caught and face the music.
Think about it: if a surgeon lies about their experience and you go under the knife, you’re in for a world of pain. It’s the same in engineering. Clients choose engineers and firms based on experience, trusting you to get the job done right.
But it’s not just about honesty. Deceptive behavior is like the gateway drug to violating all other ethical principles in engineering. If you can’t be trusted to tell the truth, what else can’t you be trusted with?…
Key guidelines to follow
Stay true to qualifications: Be honest about your credentials and qualifications. Don’t bend the truth by claiming you have experience in a certain area when you don’t.
For instance, you might say you’re experienced in a specific field, thinking you’ll learn as you go. But clients aren’t paying for your education. Some projects need years of experience, and without it, you’ll inevitably make blunders.
Keep contracts clean: When it comes to winning contracts, playing fair is the only way to come out on top!
That means steering clear of any attempts to skew the decision-making process, like offering kickbacks to clients. It’s like bribing a referee in a sports game – not only is it unethical, but it also shatters the game’s integrity.
Ethical principles in engineering wrap up
Without ethics, engineering would be like trying to swim in an empty pool. It just doesn’t work! Taking shortcuts might look tempting, but it can lead to major trouble later on.
After all, shoddy engineering practices don’t just affect a single project; they can create a ripple effect and impact society as a whole. The world we inhabit today has been built from the ground up by engineers, and we all rely on their work to keep us safe and comfy.
What are your thoughts on ethical principles in engineering? Do you think the current ethics in engineering are up to snuff?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.