ETHICS AND ENGINEERING
Engineers must always be aware of the larger consequences of their actions on the world since their jobs are so crucial to the welfare of the public . This is why it is so important in engineering education to emphasize ethics, defined as “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions” . Often engineers are taught to think analytically rather than to think about more challenging concepts like right and wrong . This is why most companies and organizations have a Code of Ethics that all members must abide by. I am currently at an ethical crossroads, because my supervisor has been distributing misleading information to clients and has now asked me to ignore this situation.
My name is Heather McCray. I am a Civil Engineer and an active member in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The purpose of the company I work for is to update structures to make them more earthquake and wind-resistant, specifically by installing a variety of what are called Tuned Mass Dampers (TMDs).
Tuned mass dampers are a technology used to reduce the effects of earthquakes on buildings, especially multiple-story buildings. Specifically, a TMD is a large device installed at the top of tall buildings that dissipates the vibrations of an earthquake so as to cause less stress to the structure of the building. The TMD is most commonly used in the form of a pendulum suspended from the ceiling. When any category of earthquake vibrates the building, the pendulum will swing the opposite way of the floor movement, creating a force in the opposite direction, reducing the force of the earthquake. Tuned mass dampers do not completely cancel out the force, but they reduce it by a great deal. They are also commonly used to reduce vibrations from the wind .
A year ago, I finished a project installing an expensive, newer tuned mass damper at the top of a medium-sized skyscraper owned by Verizon. I was the head engineer for the project and I represented my company for much of the planning and financial proceedings with the client, a man named Mr. Reynolds, the building coordinator. Yesterday I met with Mr. Reynolds, for the first time since last year. He was upset because the Verizon skyscraper had recently been damaged by strong winds and the cost of repairs was high. Mr. Reynolds explained his understanding that the tuned mass damper technology is not perfect and its purpose is to reduce vibrations from earthquakes and wind. However, he said that he was told and even guaranteed by my boss, a man named Mr. Patton, that the TMD would reduce 80% of the vibrations. He had hired a building inspector to inspect the wind damage and the report from the data collected by the TMD showed that only 53% of the total wind vibrations had been reduced. This difference between what the repair cost might have been and what the repair cost is currently, came out to $3 million. I expressed my apology on behalf of the company and planned another meeting for next week with Mr. Reynolds.
First I decided to review the research and designs for this newer TMD installed in the Verizon skyscraper. In all of the research, the percent of the vibrations reduced was mentioned only once. The research showed that anywhere from 55-80% of earthquake and wind vibrations are estimated to be reduced by the damper. Next, I talked to Mr. Patton and he confirmed that he had guaranteed an 80% reduction. I knew that we had installed 3 of these dampers over the last 3 years, including one we are currently installing. I asked Mr. Patton if he had told these two other clients the same thing and he said “Of course, it’s the truth.” I suspected he knew this was a stretch of the truth, not ‘the truth,’ so I showed him the research. His reply was that the research was not very thorough nor clear. I pressed on, asking him if he believes this to be true, why would he guarantee 80% success of the damper? Mr. Patton became frustrated and asked me not to make a big deal of it and, despite a few attempts to continue talking with him, he ended the conversation.
I face an ethical dilemma. It appears that my boss has been giving misleading information to clients (presumably to gain their business), my company’s research and development team has done poor-quality research on this new tuned mass damper, and now my boss has asked me to keep quiet about the incident. I have a meeting with Mr. Reynolds next week, and I don’t know what I am going to say. At first, I took a step back and tried not to get flustered so that I could remain professional. Then, I decided to turn to research to seek advice on the appropriate course of action.
The first ethical issue in this situation is the misleading/exaggerated information. According to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics, engineers should “Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.” The NSPE Code of Ethics also states “Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.” Mr. Patton distorted the facts and failed to acknowledge his errors . According to the ASCE Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner” and “Engineers ... shall not participate in the dissemination of untrue, unfair or exaggerated statements...” Engineers should be knowledgeable about the facts and not just blindly accept and distribute them . My boss violated all of these standards.
Mr. Patton also has a duty as a senior engineer to be a good role model. According to the Code of Ethics of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), senior engineers must “Honor the responsibility not only to train [junior engineers] in proper professional conduct in performing research and publishing results, but also to model such conduct before them” . This states that a senior engineer cannot effectively train junior engineers unless his/her own performance is beyond reproach, otherwise the training is hypocritical . My boss’s poor ethical judgment compromises his subordinate’s trust in him and may even lead us to wonder what other unethical activities he has been a part of .
The second ethical issue is that the researchers did a poor job which was never corrected. According to the Code of Ethics of the BMES, researchers have an obligation to “Publish and/or present properly credited results of research accurately and clearly” . If the research is not clear and accurate, it is possible that incorrect information may be assumed true, as in this case with Mr. Patton. Also, according to The Singapore Statement on Research Integrity, “Researchers should report to the appropriate authorities any suspected research misconduct, including... carelessness...” . This was not done by the researchers either.
The third ethical issue occurred when my boss asked me to compromise my integrity to cover up his ethical shortcomings. According to the NSPE Code of Ethics, engineers should “Avoid deceptive acts.” In this case, I would classify covering up misrepresented facts as deceptive . Therefore, by asking me to forget about this issue, he is asking me to risk my professional license and career . This might even be seen as my agreeing to take part in a cover-up, if there was to be an investigation .
The workplace should always value ethics above all else. Employees should feel comfortable enough to be able to voice their concerns. Also, although I have an obligation to my company to help gain any profit I can, I have another obligation to my company to represent it in the best possible way including being trustworthy and moral .
I turned to other sources for advice on this issue. First I went over the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Biomedical Engineering Society.
There are six fundamental canons of the NSPE Code. Canon 1 states “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” The dilemma I am facing does not directly involve safety or danger. Canon 2 states “Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.” In my dilemma, no one did someone else’s job. Canon 3 states “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.” This canon directly relates to my case. My boss, Mr. Patton, did not give truthful statements, he gave exaggerated statements .
Canon 4 states “Engineers shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.” No one in this instance acted in a disloyal manner to the client or company. Canon 5 states “Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts.” This canon relates in two ways to this dilemma I am facing. Mr. Patton used deception by exaggerating statistics to gain clients and then he asked me to use deception to cover up his ethical shortcomings. Canon 6 states “Engineers shall conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.” This canon was useful three ways. My boss did not act honorably by giving misleading information. The researchers did not act responsibly by doing a poor job researching. Finally, I must abide by this canon in deciding my course of action .
There are seven fundamental canons of the ASCE Code. All but two are the same as already mentioned in the NSPE Code. The fifth canon states “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” This relates to this situation because my boss engaged in unfair competition by exaggerating the effectiveness of our tuned mass damper. The seventh canon states “Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.” This doesn’t really relate to this case . I also referenced the eight obligations of the BMES Code because, even though they are intended specifically for Biomedical Engineers, I found the basis of some of the obligations useful in the ethical dilemma I face.
I referenced case studies as well. These I found to be the most useful of all because they gave examples of how the Codes of Ethics related in real situations. I utilized two educational short videos that gave a fictitious case study then much analysis. They were very useful because the analysis related to my case in many ways, such as finding motives behind unethical behavior. I read two articles on ethics that were on very specific topics such as engineering mentoring, so only a few pieces of information were helpful. I also consulted the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity which was helpful in determining the standards for effective research.
MY COURSE OF ACTION
There may be multiple correct responses or there may be no truly correct responses to an ethical dilemma, but an engineer should have the ability to decide on the best response . It is important that I act quickly and decide on the best response in this instance so that the issue does not escalate . My first step should be to write everything down, specifically the details of the case and the ethical research I have done .
Then, remaining professional, I should talk to Mr. Patton again and explain my situation. I will recommend to him that we refund Mr. Reynolds the $3 million difference. Our research and development team should re-evaluate the performance of the TMD. Then we should inform the two other clients for whom we installed this new damper of the real statistic. If they demand a refund of a reasonable amount, we should agree to it . If Mr. Patton is still being unreasonable, I should report this case. Since I am a member of the ASCE, I may file a complaint to the ASCE Committee on Professional Conduct . I also could report it to the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) .
ADVICE TO OTHERS
Here I have some general advice for other engineers faced with ethical dilemmas. First, remember that the NSPE Code of Ethics should be the first stop. It very clearly outlines the standards for ethical behavior . Also, the safety of the public comes before all else, even the other articles in the NSPE Code of Ethics. If an engineer’s judgment is overruled, s/he needs to report the situation, even breaking confidentiality .
Engineers should keep it professional at all times . It is recommended to mentally prepare oneself before a discussion so s/he is confident and doesn’t appear nervous. Engineers need to be so sure in their decision that they won’t be pushed around or made to doubt themselves . Two good questions to ask when deciding on a course of action is ‘What would my role model do?’ and ‘How will I feel after making this decision?’ .
THE ETHICAL DECISION
This situation faced me with three ethical issues: my boss misleading clients with exaggerated information, the poor research done on the new tuned mass damper, and my boss asking me to compromise my integrity by not saying anything about the situation. I utilized my resources to decide upon the best course of action. My plan involves professionally talking to Mr. Patton and refunding the clients. I feel confident that I am doing the ethically right thing and I feel that I have handled the situation well. I maintained the reputation of Engineers as ethical professionals.
 Biomedical Engineering Society Code of Ethics. (2004, February 1). Retrieved October 25, 2014, from http://bmes.org/files/2004 Approved Code of Ethics(2).pdf
 Ethics. (2014, January 1). Retrieved October 26, 2014, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethics
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 Gutierrez Soto, M., & Adeli, H. (2013). Tuned mass dampers. Archives of Computational Methods in Engineering, 20(4), 419-431. doi:10.1007/s11831-013-9091-7
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I would like to thank Carissa Corkery and Violet Lawson for revising my essay. I would like to thank Aaron Marko for discussing ideas with me. I would like to thank Becky Ghobrial for reviewing the formatting requirements with me.