The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Engineering Ethics: Only Your Reputation is at Risk

“Engineering ethics is beyond personal morality. It refers to standards of conduct that every engineer wants to follow. It is a fiduciary responsibility to the public.”

Bill O'Rourke | July 10, 2015
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An exposed car engine is depicted to demonstrate the complexity of ethics and building an ethical reputation.

All professions – business, medicine, teaching, law and engineering – have adopted codes of ethics to guide professional behavior. All of these codes generally state that the professional should “do what’s right.” The problem is that different people perceive different behavior to be “right” at different times. So, more explanation is necessary, from moral awareness, to judgment, to integrity, honesty and fairness.

All people face moral and ethical situations in the workplace. These include conflicts of interest, suspicion of wrong-doing, dishonesty, theft, and misrepresentation. Engineering ethics is beyond personal morality. It refers to standards of conduct that every engineer wants to follow. It is a fiduciary responsibility to the public. It includes the notion that the professional requires a certain degree of competence before acting in a manner where others will be relying on that competence. Engineering ethics is fact-based. It provides assurance that the public can rely on the technical actions or assertions of the engineer and that the result will meet the intended or represented specifications.

Engineering is what engineers do; and by professional standards they must do their engineering “right.” This involves assurances of health, safety, reliability, avoiding environmental harm, quality, durability, and economy. Yet, many of these concepts involve trade-offs such as planned obsolescence, cost/benefit analysis, and risk management. Engineers cannot guarantee 100% quality, nor can they eliminate all risk, but they can specify the chemical composition, the properties of the product, the expected life, and follow generally accepted design standards so that the public understands in an open, honest and transparent way exactly what is being technically represented, warranted, and assured.

Personal Integrity

We are all challenged daily to do what is right personally and professionally

Beyond the broad topic of the engineering profession is the more specific topic of personal ethics (integrity). In reviewing ethical situations, it becomes clear that individuals, not organizations, make the ethical choices, right or wrong. We are all challenged daily to do what is right personally and professionally, given the mandate for profitability, the stress in the workplace, the drive to get it done better, faster, and cheaper, and doing what is “right” is not always the easy choice. Still it is the best choice, and the only choice.

When asked by those entering the workforce for my recommendation on the best employer, my response is, typically, to work for a person or company that you respect and admire. Those enlightened leaders seek to do what’s best. They strive for the theoretical limits of what is possible. They teach us how to use our imagination. They talk and act in superlative; not just settling to be “good” or even “better,” just always seeking to be the “best.” And, they believe that ethical, honest behavior is the only way to live.

The History of Engineering Ethics Demonstrates the Concerns of the Profession

The engineering field established itself as a distinct profession in the 19th century. In The United States, this growing professionalism gave rise to the formation of four founding engineering societies:

Similar societies and institutes appeared throughout the World.

As the profession became established, its standards of conduct also began to develop and evolve. Professional ethics refers to those special morally permissible standards of conduct that, ideally, every member of a profession will follow. Engineers become exposed to these professional standards of conduct in engineering school and from others in the profession.

An example from ASCE states that Engineers shall

Many of the larger corporations have adopted “Values” (almost all including “Integrity) and their own codes of conduct. Many have appointed Chief Compliance Officers for ethics, just as they have appointed compliance officers for safety, health and environmental affairs and sustainability. The engineers, like all employees, are expected to behave in accordance with those corporate values.

The professional standards of conduct for engineers set a very high bar for the professional engineer. Sure, there have been engineering mistakes. Sure, there has been liability ascribed to faulty engineering design. Sure, there are some “bad apples” in the profession. However, considering the scope of the work that engineers have addressed over the last century, their collective performance has been superior.

There have been dramatic episodes of engineering failures that can be attributed to ethical lapses, including:

When technical design and technical operation are involved in catastrophic failures, the finger will often point to the engineer. But in these complex situations, there are often numerous organizational behaviors and pressures acting simultaneously. Many factors usually cause these failures, not just the technology.

The Ford Pinto: an Ethical Lapse?

In 1968 Lee Iacocca, who had much success with the introduction of the Mustang, recommended to Ford CEO Henry Ford that Ford design a small car to compete with the foreign small car market. Henry Ford agreed with Lee Iacocca and promoted him to President. Iacocca wanted the new Pinto in the showrooms by the 1971 model introduction. That mean that the Pinto had to be designed and tooled in record time.

Prior to introduction, Ford conducted crash tests. Eight Pintos were subjected to rear-end collisions. All eight cars that had the standard fuel tank failed the tests. Three Pintos were modified to prevent failure and the modified design did prevent failure in the crash test of these three cars. Despite those results, Ford proceeded with the standard fuel tank design. There was pressure at Ford to meet the fast introduction, plus meet a price tag of $2000 plus a targeted weight not to exceed 2,000 pounds. Ford experimented with alternative gas tank locations but all reduced trunk space. A quote attributed to a Ford engineer was “safety isn’t the issue, trunk space is.” Iacocca was quoted as saying often that “safety doesn’t sell.”

The final review at Ford was a cost/benefit analysis that ascribed a value of $200,725 on a human life. They compared the cost of an $11 gas tank retrofit to the cost of losing an estimated 180 lives and decided that it was three times less expensive to proceed with the standard gas tank design.

As early as 1973 the Ford field engineers concluded that the Pinto was susceptible to exploding in low speed (less than 25 mph) rear-end collisions. It was not until 1978, faced with litigation, public outrage, and government attention, that Ford launched a recall of 1.5 million Pintos.

Was this an issue of engineering ethics? The engineers designed the car, identified a potential problem, and identified alternative solutions (relocation of the tank or retrofit to minimize the risk). The fuel tank location behind the rear axle was commonplace in American cars at the time. The engineering seemed sound. Still, a decision was made to proceed knowingly with a design that failed crash tests. When field reports indicated that the fires were happening at an increasing rate, the field engineers did not launch a recall for five more years. There were clearly many individuals in a position to do something or say something long before 1978, including the engineers, but they apparently didn’t. This shows how important a corporate culture can be in facing ethical situations objectively.

Author and Lecturer Dr. Mary Gentile, from Babson College, stresses the importance of a corporate culture that allows and even fosters employees speaking-up on ethical issues, and the culture to assure that the employees are heard when they have the courage to speak. “Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (2010).”

A Few Lapses, Many More Successes

Rather than dwell further on specific situations and try to dissect the very complex reasons why they happened, consider another observation. Think about all the buildings in the world, all of the bridges around the world, all the dams, all the trains, cars, boats and airplanes moving around the globe. Imagine the number of factories, refineries, drilling rigs, and other manufacturing operations; think about all the energy being generated whether nuclear, coal fired, hydroelectric, wind or solar; think about water delivery, collection and treatment systems. Imagine the billions of televisions, radios, phones, tablets and computers that keep the world constantly connected.

These vast facilities, machines and equipment all around our globe, and even beyond, are designed, constructed operated reliable. The amount of confidence that the world’s population has regarding this reliability is incredible and amazing and well placed. The reason for that confidence is that the engineers do their job. The universities that train the engineers are teaching the requirements of their profession. The profession that is embracing, training and developing these engineers is doing so with professional ethics.

Engineers Are Rightfully Proud of Their Ethics

Engineers are a proud bunch; they pride themselves on providing technical information that is accurate, complete and reliable. That sense of pride is sometimes demonstrated in the Professional Engineering stamp that is applied to the work product. The “Iron Ring” is a ring worn by Canadian-trained engineers, as a symbol and constant reminder of the obligations and ethics associated with the engineering profession.

Whether engineers were the Iron Ring, carry their Professional Engineering stamp, or not – they are doing the job in a most responsible, accountable incredible way. That’s why engineering routinely ranks in the top five professions in surveys, such as the Honesty & Ethics Poll conducted by Gallup (in a recent Honesty & Ethics Poll by Gallup the Nursing profession was rated highest, while members of congress were rated lowest, even below used car salesmen).

The Past is Prologue for Deeper Ethical Practices in the Future

Superior performance must serve as the foundation for the future, to maintain and even enhance the professional reputation of our engineers. Considering the state of our many bridges, buildings, water treatment facilities, and factories, the public is counting on the engineering profession to tell them where and when we need to be concerned. The public is counting on the profession to take the difficult step, when warranted, of shutting down facilities and bridges when that action is necessary. The professional engineer must continue to embrace that fiduciary responsibility.

The leaders must articulate their clear expectations in this ethical area.

These ethical issues happen every day throughout our organizations. Most are handled diligently and appropriately. A most important factor in maintaining an ethical culture of a profession or an organization and the leaders of the profession. That “tone at the top” must be audible. The leaders must articulate their clear expectations in this ethical area. They have to set the example and be the example. They need to train the next generation of leaders to assure that the culture continues long into the future.

A Few Guidelines and Real-life Anecdotes to Support the Concepts


The situation: Beryllium in an aluminum alloy added desirable properties but could deteriorate the health of the workers.

The solution: Examine alternatives at considerable cost but that offer similar benefits, then convince customers to accept them.

Don’t Bend the Rules – Ever.

The situation: Products were being shipped without being properly inspected-equipment had malfunctioned-in order to enhance the quarterly financial statements, and it was justified since no defects were found during four years of production.

The solution: Call the customer and offer the option of accepting the products or waiting for the normal inspection results.

Tell the Truth.

The situation: Assume, for calculating life cycle costs, that 100 percent of the aluminum in a product could be recycled but 0 percent for a competing plastic product, an unrealistic assumption.

The solution: Assume current recycle rates for both materials of 40-50 percent, adding integrity to the calculations and the person making them.

Tell the Whole Truth.

The situation: A deposition concerning an airplane seat belt that was intended to reduce damage to abdomens should the plane crash. The design included score lines intended to ‘give’ slightly. The design was inherently faulty but the questioning lawyer didn’t ask the “right” questions.

The solution: I rejected the advice of the company lawyer to not offer any information that wasn’t asked for. I still felt an obligation to contact the manufacturer and assure myself that the design in question would not be commercialized.

Do What’s Right.

The situation: Trichlorethylene was found in core samples taken adjacent to a manufacturing plant, possibly affecting the drinking water and health of 125 families.

The solution: Ignore the advice of the company lawyer to do nothing since, in the lawyer’s opinion any action could be construed as assuming liability. Then visit all 125 homes, notify the families of the risk, deliver large bottles of water and promise to continue to do so until adequate filters could be installed. Sort the liability question later.

Reinforce Values.

The situation: Safety incidents were being hidden by the manager of a plant in Australia, violating one of the manufacturer’s primary missions.

The solution: In a meeting, I was asked if the VP had fired the plant manager: “No’, I replied, “the plant manager has fired himself with his cover-up, and it’s up to others to fire him formally. All employees are watching.” The plant manager is no longer with the company.

A Suggested Approach: For personal ethical situations, I suggest the following approach, adapted from “Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk About How to Do It Right” (5th Edition) by Linda Trevino and Kate Nelson:

* Originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of the "Pittsburgh ENGINEER"