The 6 Ethical Principles in Engineering Explained

The health and safety of the public rely on the ethical principles in engineering. Without these principles, death and destruction would be widespread.

Life today heavily relies on engineering in every way imaginable. Just take a quick look around you.

So it’s obvious how engineers have a great responsibility in the work they do.

I’m going to go over the 6 ethical principles in engineering, with supporting examples. These are rules every practicing engineer must follow

In other words, it’s like sports. There are boundaries that athletes, practicing engineers, need to stay within.

What’s more, for the most part, I find ethical principles in engineering is just regular ethics. It’s the same rules most people already follow. But, we now apply these rules to the engineering field.

Important Note: my discussion applies to all types of engineering. As no engineer is above these ethical principles. 

This includes nontraditional engineering fields like software engineering.

That said, there may be industry-specific practice guidelines I miss in my discussion. In such cases, refer to the specific guidelines in your industry to get up to speed.

Then for added information, visit the National Society of Professional Engineers.

What is even considered ethical?

Before we go over the 6 ethical principles in engineering, let’s define ethics.

According to Google, ethics is,

“Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.”

The application of ethics seems very straightforward right off the bat. But it’s not a completely black and white subject.

What I mean is, who defines what’s unethical?

Is an oil pipeline that runs through a populated area unethical? One would think so. But, what if it reduces the number of vehicles that transport the same product.

Thus, less pollution, and reduced transportation-related fatalities. At the same time, the oil helps heat poverty-stricken areas.

Then, there’s the entire conversation on ethics in engineering work for the military. I’m talking about weapon design.

Clearly, it’s definitely a hairy subject. There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to ethics.

It’s why there are entire fields with very smart people dedicated to this matter. They try to understand the impacts of engineering design choices. This includes the impact on society and Earth as a whole.

That said, my focus though isn’t on the ethics of ideas. But rather, ethics of engineering. In other words, how a practicing engineer should conduct themselves.

To put it another way, the purpose of this discussion is less about the product. Instead, about the methods used to engineer the product.

Did the engineer follow rigorous engineering practices, while following all standards? Also, did the engineer remain honest and transparent to their client? Then so on and so forth.

#1 Maintain the health and safety of the public

ethical principles in engineering

This goes without saying. An engineer needs to protect the health and safety of the public at all costs.

Think about it. Would you ever want your family to fly on an unsafe airplane?

I know, an airplane is the most obvious extreme example. A faulty airplane design can near-instantly lead to passenger death.

But so many other things you never think about, impact your safety on a daily basis too. Just consider the following:

  • Faulty electrical wiring in your home causing a fire
  • Laptop battery exploding as you watch a video
  • The washing machine exploding as you stand nearby waiting for the washing to end
  • Baby crib collapsing and injuring your sleeping child

I can go on and on. The list is endless!

The point is, every engineer’s first priority should always be the health and safety of the public.

Key guidelines to follow

Unlawful practice: never encourage, support, and assist unlawful engineering. It doesn’t matter who is taking part in the unlawful practice. Whether it’s a single engineer or a large global company.

Violations: report any violations to appropriate authorities. Also, always speak up, no matter who wants you to keep quiet. No person or company is above the law, especially when it comes to the health and safety of the public.

Association: be careful who uses your name and title. More specifically, don’t associate with fraudulent or dishonest businesses.

As a professional, your name and title carry a lot of weight. In other words, your name can easily fool the public into thinking something is safe when it’s not.

Standards and codes: remain compliant with all local, state, and national requirements. These standards and codes help prevent public harm.

Also, don’t allow any work to pass by you that doesn’t meet the required standards and codes. If you find any noncompliance in someone’s work, let the person immediately know.

Sometimes I hear, “if the City reviewer misses it, then we’re all good.”

I find this type of talk disturbing.

You should never cut a corner only to save a client a few thousand dollars. Even more, to save a client a few million dollars.

Always stick to your principles through thick and thin. Because each small rule you break will overtime prepare you to break a big rule.

Overruled judgment: an engineer isn’t always right. Sometimes an authority will overrule your judgment.

In such a case, you need to immediately report to your client and employer. I’m talking about when overruling endangers life and/or property.

Because others need to know of any ramifications from your overruled judgment.

Release of information: certain client and employer information needs to remain private. This includes data, processes, facts, and communication records.

You only release information after receiving consent from your client and/or employer. Because you don’t own the information. Also, in the wrong hands, the information can become a safety risk.

Imagine the release of computer security information that could compromise government websites.

#2 Provide your best quality work at all times

Engineers are regular people too. They get tired, lazy, and careless.

To ensure you deliver quality work every time, you need to treat every project like it’s your last.

This way, a small project gets your same attention as a monstrous project.

Because simple projects can turn into monstrous problems too. Imagine a faulty electrical circuit in a small panel in the woods in California.

Keep in mind, it takes much less than an electrical panel to start a forest fire. A single misplaced lit match alone can ravage the state.

Key guidelines to follow

Confidence in your work: do your best to always deliver the best product. If you can’t hang your hat on your design, how can anyone else?

You want the people who will use your product to have confidence in it. In many instances, people place their trust and even life in your work, and you don’t want to let anyone down.

Accuracy and rigor: attack every problem to the best of your ability. Research anything you don’t know or ask for help.

Don’t leave any stones unturned.

You want to ensure you always deliver top quality work. As inaccuracies and carelessness cause the most engineering failures.

#3 Provide services in the area of your expertise 

The most difficult part of engineering design is the final 1% of the work. This final 1% is when your expertise comes into play.

In most cases, engineers only have expertise in one field of work. For example, one engineer may only be an expert in structural design.

Thus, this engineer should only focus on structural work. Because he or she can’t confidently do the final 1% of work in other engineering fields. Even if this engineer thinks the work is very straightforward.

When you do unfamiliar work, that’s when problems start if you don’t have the right support team.

Important Note: this doesn’t mean you can’t grow your experience. Also, it doesn’t mean you can’t work on projects you’re new to. 

You just need the appropriate support. This means you need to tackle unfamiliar projects with other engineers who have experience. 

Key guidelines to follow

Project selection: don’t take on work you don’t have experience or education in. Even when the paycheck looks great, you can’t accept the work.

It’s no different than if you hired a plumber who says, “I’ll perfectly fix your pipes.” But soon, you realize he doesn’t know a thing about plumbing.

A week then passes after the plumber finished his work. Next thing you know, a pipe bursts underneath your home’s slab foundation.

This goes back to the 1% concept in engineering design.

Sign offs: never sign off on work you’re not an expert in. This includes any work you didn’t directly manage or work on.

Your signature carries a lot of weight and can mislead people. If you sign off on someone else’s work, people will assume you did the work. Or that you at least checked the work and blessed it.

As a result, they’ll think the work or design is safe and good to run with. Because again, you’re the professional who “should know everything.”

No different than a doctor who signs off on a prescription. Most people then don’t question the prescription. They just think the doctor knows better.

Thus, only sign off on segments of work you’ve reviewed and that meet all required standards.

#4 Be honest and truthful

Honesty and remaining truthful should be staples in any line of work.

And in engineering, without these qualities, preventable failures would become more common.

Imagine a group of engineers who work on a single project. Each engineer also has different expertise.

Now, the lead engineer completes the entire design. But there’s a part of the design he’s not too fluent in.

As a result, the lead engineer asks engineer #2 to closely review this specific part of the design. This part of the design is in engineer #2’s field of expertise.

Engineer #2 is feeling lazy though and doesn’t properly review the design. He just loosely scans over it. He thinks the lead engineer probably did decent enough design work.

In other words, he doesn’t check any parts of the calculations. Also, he doesn’t check if the design meets all codes and standards.

The lead engineer then asks engineer #2, “how did the review go, did you have a chance to review everything I handed to you?”

Engineer #2 responds with, “of course, I reviewed everything closely. Everything looks great!”

The lead engineer then goes ahead and submits the design.

You see the problem here? This level of dishonesty and lack of care can lead to design failures.

Engineer #2 could have easily told the truth. But then he’d come off as lazy and undependable. So he tried to cover his tracks through dishonesty.

What I described is an internal dishonesty matter. There’s then another level, where the engineer lies to the public. Both matters are highly problematic.

Key guidelines to follow

Technical opinions: as a professional, people will run with your words. Thus, it’s important to only give technical responses in areas you’re an expert in. Also, only provide responses supported by facts.

As an example, you may think your opinion doesn’t matter much. Just like how you randomly spew who you think will win the Super Bowl.

But as an engineer, people will take your opinionated words as gospel. They view ALL your words as expert advice!

Outside influence: remain neutral in all your communication. This includes statements, criticism, and support.

In other words, don’t allow someone to buy you out to make you twist the truth. Or allow someone to dictate how you should do your work.

On that note, when you do speak on an interested party’s behalf, you need to identify the party. Let everyone involved in the project know.

Conflict of interest: don’t allow third parties to influence your decisions.

For example, getting free designs from a vendor. In return, the vendor wants you to specify their equipment for your client.

Then another example is taking a pay cut from a contractor. The contractor wants you to make decisions that could hurt your client for their own benefit.

Objective: remain objective in all forms of communication. This includes statements and any court testimonies.

Ethical principles in engineering cross over to all situations. So, you don’t get to pick and choose when to apply them.

Honesty: don’t lie or even stretch the truth regarding any engineering related work. A small lie today can turn into a big mess down the road.

Honesty may cause some short term issues when you’re facing a problem. But at the same time, you’ll avoid magnitudes of greater problems down the road.

Communicate: if you don’t know something, speak up. Otherwise, people will assume you know and they’ll run with your words. As again, you’re the expert!

On the same note, own up to your mistakes. All engineers make mistakes, and you need to let everyone know of your mistake sooner than later.

#5 Provide service in the best interest of a client, customer, or employer

engineers discussing construction matters

Your focus must remain on serving the party you’re in a binding contract with.

Thus, prevent clients from making poor decisions.

Most clients lack specialized knowledge. They need your direction as a professional. You need to help them avoid going against enforced rules and standards.

Also, don’t leak information you have no legal right over.

I’ve heard of cases where engineers stole proprietary design information from a company. Then, they took the information to a secondary company to get a big bonus check.

Or even, these engineers started their own business with the stolen proprietary information. It’s the leg up they needed to hit the ground running in their business.

In the end, authorities exposed and charged these engineers.

Key guidelines to follow

Consent: keep all information related to a project confidential. In the instances where you need to communicate proprietary information, first get permission.

Maybe you need to tell a supplier about the operations of a facility. Otherwise, you can’t get input on the best equipment to specify for your client. In this instance, ask permission from the facility owner you’re serving.

Transparency: if conflicts of interest exist, tell everyone right off the bat. This way, others will know the inner workings of all the relationships in a project.

For example, others will know how an outside source may influence your judgment in your work.

One party compensation: don’t accept payments from two different parties for the same project. This without doubt creates a conflict of interest.

Imagine accepting a paycheck from a client and their awarded contractor.

The customer wants the perfect construction without any loss in quality. While the contractor wants to do a good job, they also want to get the job done fast. Most importantly, the contractor wants to make as much money as possible.

In the end, only accept compensation from more than one party if everyone is in the know. Also, everyone must agree on the acceptance of these secondary transactions.

Playing both sides: don’t accept contracts when there’s an existing conflict of interest. If someone from your company serves on a governmental board, you can’t accept a contract from them.

The contract may seem like an easy win, but it’s potential for all types of problems. Plus, it’s unethical.

#6 Avoid deceptiveness

It’s no surprise that falsifying credentials will cause all sorts of problems. Or even, stretching the truth over your engineering experience is hugely problematic.

Imagine a surgeon who tells you they’ve done a procedure one-hundred-plus times. You then choose this surgeon per their past surgical experience with this procedure.

If the surgeon lied about their experience, you’ll be in a world of pain when you go under the knife.

It’s no different in engineering. A lot of the time, customers choose engineers and firms based on their experience.

This goes back to the age-old joke that a bad doctor kills one person. But a bad engineer can kill hundreds.

Further, I would even say deceptiveness is a gatekeeper. It eventually leads engineers to break all the other ethical principles in engineering.

Key guidelines to follow

Falsify qualifications: remain honest with your credentials and qualifications. Don’t stretch the truth by saying you have experience in a certain type of work when you don’t.

As an example, sometimes you say you have experience in a given field because you figure you’ll learn on the spot.

But a client isn’t paying you to get an education. What’s more, certain projects require years of experience. Without a high level of experience, you’ll undoubtedly mess up. This goes back to the 1% concept in engineering design we discussed.

In short, you need to be forthright with everyone you speak with. This includes clients, peers, your employers, and the public.

Disrupting contracts: don’t improperly influence the decision making of contracts.

For example, let’s say you try to strike a deal with a customer so they award you the project. You offer someone on the customer’s side a kickback.

Without a doubt, this is unethical and illegal. But also, you’re disrupting an otherwise fair contractor selection process. You’re hurting other engineers, and maybe even the customer.

Ethical principles in engineering wrap up

Engineering without ethics simply couldn’t exist. Cutting corners in today’s modern world eventually leads to death and destruction.

For this reason, every engineer needs to follow the ethical principles in engineering. This way you understand what you should and shouldn’t do in your work.

What’s more, these ethical principles in engineering should become staples of your life. You can then pass them down to new engineers.

As in the end, bad engineering practice affects everyone. Because we’ve engineered today’s modern world from the bottom to top.

What are your thoughts on the ethical principles in engineering? Do you think the current ethics in engineering is acceptable?

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