What does an ethical dilemma look and feel like in engineering? And what should engineers do when they recognise one?
There’s great responsibility that comes with being a member of a profession that is so highly regarded by Australians, says Nick Stanton FIEAust CPEng, Director of I2I Collaborative Executive Solutions.
“As engineers, we’re deeply involved in integrity and trust,” says Stanton, who runs an Engineering Education Australia (EEA) micro-credential course named “Applying ethical decision-making practices to engineering projects”.
“We’re maintaining that every day through engineering activities. We achieve it by making good and right decisions based on our code of ethics. Unethical work is not tolerated.”
The decisions engineers make must be consistent with the expectations of Australian society, he says. Increasingly, engineering organisations are also experiencing pressure from within to ensure ethical decision making.
And so, when the public hears of residential buildings with serious engineering defects, and of residents abandoned by developers who have hidden behind corporate veils and phoenixed into other forms, it reflects on the entire profession.
The avoidance of such issues comes back to the making of decisions with integrity, Stanton says. And that, in the end, is all about ethics.
“People say it’s easy to do the right thing. Actually often it’s not,” says Stanton, who is also a retired military officer and a recipient of the Conspicuous Service Cross for leadership and innovation.
“When you’re making a decision, ask yourself if there is integrity or self-interest behind what you considered before you arrived at that decision? Was your decision vulnerable to bias or to being undermined?
“In engineering there are so many different stakeholders. You can be swayed by so many other factors without even realising it.”
How to make the right decision
How does an engineer ensure they’re making the right, ethical decision? It begins, Stanton says, with a deep knowledge of yourself.
“It starts with you,” he says. “We all have particular strengths and weaknesses. We all have particular biases, whether we know or not. We have particular alignments that could be because of our upbringing, our schooling, our friends or family.
“So the first thing we do in teaching ethics is help people understand themselves. Then they need to understand the influence of the sense of obligation or duty they might feel. You’ve heard of the saying that the customer is always right? Well, if that was true, why would they need us? If the customer or client is so clever, why would they need engineers?”
The engineer cannot transfer ethical responsibilities to the customer, Stanton says. Similarly, they should never ignore a problem with a design simply because they’re not connected with that part of the project.
At the same time, Stanton says, an engineer shouldn’t “die in a ditch” because of somebody else’s decision that raises personal ethical questions.
“The classic question I get from junior engineers is how can they take on management when they recognise a potential unethical decision,” he says.
“If the decision was not yours, you should communicate your concerns, letting people know why you believe it’s an ethical concern.
“It can be extremely stressful to find the moral courage to say, ‘This is not right’. It takes a lot of courage. We need engineers to do that but keep things in perspective and don’t threaten to resign. How can you make things better if you’re no longer involved?”
Identifying a quandary
Your gut will often let you know about an ethical dilemma, says Melissa Kirby, Legal Director at Sharpe & Abel, a law firm that consults to engineers and technical professions.
Kirby agrees that standing up for one’s beliefs can be stressful, which could explain the physical reaction.
“People usually get a feeling in the pit of their stomach that tells them something isn’t right,” she says. “That’s simplistic, but there’s research to back it up, that knot in your stomach.”
Ethics should be the starting point and the ending point of a decision, Kirby says.
“In terms of ethics in engineering, it means starting from the point of what is the right thing to do, as opposed to starting from what is the most profitable thing to do,” she says.
“Lawyers have ethical requirements. Doctors have ethical requirements. It is absolutely possible to be ethical and profitable.”
Ethics is also the end point, Kirby explains, because engineers should be able to look back and know they’ve done the right thing and made the right decisions.
Part of avoiding ethical dilemmas, says Professor Katy Barnett from Melbourne Law School and consultant with Sharp & Abel, involves having an overriding ethical duty to a higher body or cause.
For lawyers, that is a duty to the court.
“That stands above our duty to our clients,” Barnett says. “It means that even if something is going to go against our client, we have a duty to report it to the court.”
“A conflict of interest is where you’re pulled two or more ways — client demands, what you think is right, the need to make profit etc. Lawyers are always interrogating whether we have a conflict of interest and whether, when we’re working with clients, it is going to conflict with our ethical duties.”
Engineers should do the same, Barnett believes.
An engineer’s equivalent of a lawyer’s duty to the court might be a duty to engineering principles, or to the profession.
Guidelines towards such a duty can be found in Engineers Australia’s Code of Ethics.
As the realm of engineering is complex, it means engineers work in an environment of tension, says Dr Kourosh Kayvani FIEAust CPEng, Partner at HKA and Engineers Australia Board Director. HKA is a global consultancy handling risk mitigation and dispute resolution.
“It’s not just technically complex, but also societally and commercially,” Kayvani says.
“As engineers, we are responsible for designing and building the infrastructure upon which our human progress rests. That responsibility, however, is not discharged purely through our technical knowledge and capability.
“Ethical thinking and decision making is also an integral part of being a professional and for being trusted by society to deliver their built environment.”
Kayvani offers the high-profile problems seen in high-rise apartment buildings in Sydney and Melbourne over recent years as examples.
“These problems happened in well-established areas of engineering that were not dealing with cutting edge techniques,” he says.
“So why did they happen? What role did ethics play? What do we say no to? Some engineers might say they were only responsible for a certain part of the project, but if they were aware of the problem, what was their ethical duty?”
“Can an engineer accept a commission when the client says they don’t have budget for the engineer to oversee the implementation of the design? If your client demands a leaner and cheaper design, but you feel you’re compromising safety and long-term performance, do you have an ethical obligation to protest?”
Kayvani suggests engineers take the lead from the medical and legal professions, with ethics training as part of the curriculum, followed up with ongoing training.
Engineers Australia’s Code of Ethics offers guidelines around professional conduct, specifically the demonstration of integrity, competent practice, the exercising of leadership and the promotion of sustainability. But Engineers Australia is not a regulator.
“We don’t have the power to say you’re not allowed to practice,” he says.
“We are wanting to be more and more proactive about the enforcing of ethics, rather than simply having our Code of Ethics there as a guide. But this is a hard problem.
“The soft part is about taking a position and being an advocate of quality and integrity. The hard part is oversight and audits and reacting for the profession when there’s a compliance breach.
“That’s about ensuring ethical behaviour, and it’s becoming increasingly important for the profession and for society.”
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