To avoid system errors, if Chrome is your preferred browser, please update to the latest version of Chrome (81 or higher) or use an alternative browser.
Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
Author: Arthur E. Schwartz
Engineering societies play a vital role in the field of engineering ethics. Convening meetings, developing seminars and educational events, publishing resources, providing continuing education, and highlighting important developments in the field are just some of their many activities to improve professional and public understanding of the ethical challenges faced by engineers. The programs and activities spring from the values and principles expressed in each society’s code of ethics, which is a starting point for any discussion of engineering ethics in the United States and beyond.
Engineering Codes of Ethics: Background
As the technical disciplines of engineering emerged and expanded in the 19th century, engineering societies and their members recognized the need for practicing engineers to be guided by basic principles of appropriate conduct in their professional practice and relationships with employers, clients, other engineers, and, most importantly, the public.
The engineering profession’s organizational structure began to take shape with the onset of the Industrial Age and ensuing growth of scientific and technical skill and knowledge. The American Society of Civil Engineers (founded in 1852), American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (1873), American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1880), Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (1884), and American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1908) each focused on their field’s technical core but also began to explore its ethical dimensions, with some developing basic canons or codes of ethics.
With the establishment in 1934 of the National Society of Professional Engineers came efforts to develop an overarching, multidisciplinary, common, and consistent code of ethics for all practicing engineers. Other practice-based engineering and technical societies also developed codes of ethics to reflect unique professional customs, practices, and concerns.
Structure and Enforcement
The most important ethical obligations typically appear at the beginning of each society’s code. The structure and enforcement provisions of engineering and technical society codes of ethics vary. Some organizations have lengthy codes with detailed canons, principles, rules, and interpretive commentary, while others provide only brief statements of general philosophical positions. And while some codes are aspirational and intended as general guidance, others stipulate consequences, with disciplinary penalties for violations.
While there are significant similarities among the many codes of ethics of US engineering and technical societies, there are also important differences in what the codes address and do not address. For example, all but a handful of societies have statements explicitly addressing disclosure of concerns to authorities, whereas only about half include a code or any kind of statement concerning discrimination or harassment, and about a third provide guidance on sustainability and/or the environment.
Adaptation and Updating
Engineering society codes of ethics are continuously refined, updated, and influenced by ongoing professional practice issues as well as changing ethical and moral attitudes.
Modifications include the removal of prohibitions and restrictions on advertising and other promotional activities, and the addition of guidelines on the provision of price information on services, environmental sustainability, collective bargaining, supplanting (i.e., one engineer replacing another in his relationship with a client without the supplanted engineer’s knowledge or consent), and professional development.
The following sections review key common areas of engineering society codes of ethics.
Primum Inter Pares: Public Health, Safety, and Welfare
The engineer’s role in protecting public health and safety1 is regarded in most codes as the most fundamental obligation. Engineers are expected to have a very high regard for the public good, although the language varies somewhat. Codes call on engineers to “have proper regard,” consider public health and safety a “fundamental concern,” “accept responsibility for the public health and safety,” “be cognizant that their first and foremost responsibility is to the public welfare,” and “accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
Notwithstanding the variations, it is clear that—unlike other professionals, such as attorneys, physicians, or members of the clergy, who owe their primary obligation to their client, patient, or the laity—the engineer’s principal responsibility is to the health, safety, and welfare of the public. This duty may at times create a serious conflict (or at a minimum disharmony) with the engineer’s concomitant obligation to the employer’s or client’s interests, putting the engineer in a difficult, sometimes untenable position. Engineers may find themselves under significant internal (personal) and/or external pressure and strain as they seek to address a public health and safety issue encountered in their professional practice.
Duty to Employer or Client
Many codes refer to the obligation of the engineer to act as a “faithful agent or trustee.” This language does not imply blind obedience to the employer or client but instead conveys an obligation to be direct, open, and clear and to act for the benefit of the employer or client, balanced with other ethical obligations such as the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.
Disclosure of Concerns to Clients
Most professional society codes of ethics recognize the engineer’s obligation to advise the employer or client of concerns discovered by the engineer in connection with his or her work.
Such concerns may arise when a project is not successful (i.e., it does not meet the needs and requirements of the client and the public), the cost of the project varies from what was originally estimated, or the engineer observes improprieties on the part of other consultants, contractors, or public officials. Problems that must be disclosed include violations of local building or construction code or of federal health and safety or environmental law, and financial improprieties such as fraud, embezzlement, or bribery.
Sometimes disclosure raises ethical challenges for engineers, particularly when an employer or client has sought to restrict such disclosures through confidentiality agreements or other mechanisms. However, when the information to be disclosed involves a serious violation of law or a danger to the public, employer- or client-imposed restrictions cannot stand in the way of the engineer’s obligation to communicate his or her concerns to appropriate parties or authorities.
Another challenge is the overruling of an engineer’s judgment by an individual who does not possess the technical competence to render a knowledgeable opinion. The vast majority of engineers work in industry and government and many are managed and even supervised by individuals who lack engineering (or any technical) education, experience, qualifications, or training. As a result, engineers sometimes find that their recommendations—based on sound engineering principles and judgment—are not accepted by their managers or supervisors. If an engineer believes that the failure to follow those recommendations will endanger public health, safety, or welfare, the engineer has an ethical obligation to seek appropriate resolution.
Disclosure of Concerns to Authorities
Many engineering codes of ethics have provisions about the engineer’s obligation to formally disclose concerns to appropriate authorities, such as government agencies and similar entities. (However, the vagueness of the term “appropriate authorities,” which appears in many engineering codes of ethics, is itself a challenge, as it does not provide clear guidance about the appropriate agencies to which the engineer should report.)
Even if reporting to the employer or client does not result in satisfactory action or follow-up by appropriate authorities to address the engineer’s concerns, it is generally recognized that the engineer has fulfilled his or her ethical obligation by reporting to the appropriate authorities.
In all cases, the engineer should cooperate and provide all necessary information to the appropriate authorities and government agencies.
Professional, technical competence is a critical ethical obligation and, of course, central to an engineer’s performance. Engineering involves numerous technical disciplines and subdisciplines and no engineer can be competent in all. Engineers must therefore know the scope and limitations of their competence and not practice beyond them.
Furthermore, technical disciplines and subdisciplines often overlap and the line between them is murky and difficult to define. Engineers must recognize when to exercise professional self-restraint, acknowledging that they do not always possess the competence to perform certain activities or tasks. Under certain circumstances, an engineer who lacks competence in a particular area may be required to seek additional education, training, or experience in order to perform certain engineering services.
At the same time, engineers are expected to expand their professional knowledge through ongoing practice and education, so a healthy tension exists between the obligations to practice within one’s areas of competency and to enhance and update knowledge and skills.
The obligation to perform competently also places a responsibility on engineers who manage other engineers. They must be certain that the latter are appropriately assigned and managed to perform engineering services consistent with their competency for the protection of public health and safety.
Because the practice of engineering sometimes overlaps with other professions (e.g., architecture, landscape architecture, surveying, law), engineers have an ethical obligation to understand the laws and regulations relating to competencies required to practice in these areas as well as any limitations, restrictions, or prohibitions on coterminous professional practice.
Signing and Sealing of Plans
Licensed professional engineers in the United States have special legal and regulatory duties and responsibilities under state law regarding their preparation, review, and approval of engineering documents (drawings, plans, specifications, reports submitted to clients or public authorities). They must not affix their signature or seal to any engineering plan or document that deals with subject matter in which they lack competence. Such work must be performed under the professional engineer’s “responsible charge”—either the engineer who signs and seals the work or a competent subordinate who reports directly to and is supervised by the engineer signing and sealing the work. Failure to meet these duties and responsibilities can result in the loss of an engineer’s license as well as disciplinary action (e.g., suspension or expulsion from membership) by the engineer’s professional society.
Overarching Ethical Standards
Conflicts of Interest
Engineers, particularly those who work as consultants, sometimes perform work on behalf of parties in both the public and private sectors with different interests in connection with a project, transaction, or other business relationship. These professional relationships may raise the question of conflicts of interest.
Engineering codes of ethics originally prohibited engineers from becoming involved in any situation that involved a conflict of interest. However, because engineers often cannot avoid such situations, many codes were modified to instead require the engineer to disclose all circumstances relating to the conflict of interest. It is then generally up to the client to determine whether it is appropriate for the engineer to continue with the professional engagement, consistent with the law.
In all cases, following disclosure, even if all affected parties assent to the engineer’s continued involvement, engineers must be sensitive to any appearance of impropriety, which could easily reflect poorly on the engineer and/or the engineering profession generally.
Engineers in all areas of professional practice frequently become privy to information that is intended by the employer or client to remain confidential. It may be sensitive employer or client information, trade secrets, technical processes, or business information that, if disclosed or used improperly, could damage the business or other interests of the employer or client. Engineers are expected to demonstrate a professional level of care and loyalty in the performance of their services, and obligated to maintain an employer’s or client’s confidences—they must not disclose information to third parties without permission or consent obtained in advance. There are some exceptions, but as a general rule engineers who breach this obligation violate their ethical duty and may be subject to reprimand by their professional society.
Objectivity, Honesty, and Truthfulness
Objectivity, honesty, and truthfulness with employers, clients, and others are critical for establishing and maintaining the credibility necessary to practice effectively.
Unlike attorneys, engineers are not advocates or “hired guns” retained to marshal arguments in support of a position. Engineers are expected to be objective, honest, factual, and truthful in their reports, studies, analyses, designs, assessments, feasibility papers, and related documents as well as public or private statements, public testimony, promotional efforts, and other communications and representations, both express and implied. Failure to adhere to these values and practices can have grave consequences and damage the reputation of the engineer, those with whom the engineer is associated, and the engineering profession generally.
Engineers and the Law
Gifts, Bribery, and Violation of the Law
No profession can maintain public trust if its members fail to meet minimum legal requirements. All engineers must follow criminal and civil laws to ensure their professional integrity and protect the public interest.
Engineers in both the public and private sectors may have contact with vendors, material suppliers, contractors, and other commercial parties who offer gifts of substantial value in connection with existing or anticipated contracts. Similarly, engineers who are retained or being considered for a project sometimes offer gifts of substantial value to public or private parties in connection with existing or anticipated contracts. Both practices violate professional society codes of ethics.
With the increase in global engineering practice, US engineers practicing abroad are likely to encounter varying ethical cultures and must navigate differing customs. At one time, the so-called “when in Rome . . .” rule prevailed as engineers and engineering firms followed local practice—for example, offering gifts and other remuneration in exchange for contracts. However, since the enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) standards,2 US engineering firms are now legally required to follow all federal antibribery and related laws when performing engineering and related services abroad.3
Discrimination and Harassment
Engineers have an obligation to be fair and just in their professional relationships and must avoid any action that treats others in a biased manner. In addition to violating code of ethics provisions, such conduct could result in legal and other sanctions against engineers and their employers that may reflect poorly on other engineers and on the engineering profession.
Many engineering societies address these issues in their professional policies and other guidelines rather than in their codes of ethics.
With the growth of interest in the environment and sustainable development in the United States and around the world, many engineering codes of ethics have supplemented or added language to address these issues.
Engineers, whose technical expertise and practice affect and shape the environment, are expected to use their skills to preserve and protect natural resources. Only a few codes do not address this issue specifically, instead taking the position that protection of the environment is included in or implied by more general code obligations to public health and safety.
Some engineering societies that take enforcement action against members who violate other code provisions express the view that, while it is important to have sustainability provisions in their code of ethics, it may be difficult to effectively enforce them, or that such provisions could elevate the legal standard to which engineers are held and thus increase liability exposure. These societies are therefore reluctant to include such provisions in their codes of ethics.
Expert Witness Testimony
Engineers may be called upon to assist in the resolution of legal and other disputes between parties in litigation or to testify before other public authorities. Engineers serving in this role are expected to be objective, honest, factual, and truthful and to incorporate all pertinent information in their reports, studies, analyses, designs, assessments, feasibility papers, statements, testimony, and related documents. As expert witnesses they should express an engineering opinion only when it is founded on knowledge of the facts, technical competence, and honest conviction.
Engineers and engineering and technical societies have an ongoing obligation to carefully review and recommend updates to their codes of ethics, in order to balance enduring ethical values and principles while addressing contemporary issues that affect the practice of engineering.
In the years ahead engineers can be expected to play an increasingly important role in global issues. Climate change, sea level rise, access to potable water, sustainable energy, food security, and the enormous worldwide growth in urban populations will present significant ethical challenges for engineers. Engineering professional and technical societies can provide ethical guidance to assist their members in addressing these crucial challenges.
1 Some codes also include “fellow workers.”
2 The Ethics Codes and Codes of Conduct in OECD Countries are available at www.oecd.org/fr/gov/ethique/ ethicscodesandcodesofconductinoe cdcountries.htm.
3 There is a limited exception for “facilitation payments” (e.g., connecting to the electric grid, water, sewage hookup, installation of internet services) to acknowledge local compensation customs and practices.