18 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
Conflict of interest refers to the potential to distort good judgment while
serving more than one employer or client. When this potential exists, an
engineer should openly admit to these relationships in order to prevent
Although an engineer’s primary responsibility is to protect public safety,
the engineer should also perform tasks for the client or company responsibly.
Engineers are entitled to a fair work environment. Employees are entitled
to an environment where treatment is based on merit (nondiscrimination)
and ethnic, sexual, and age harassment are not tolerated. Company policies
should be spelled out in an employee handbook.
During their careers, many engineers will become involved in unethical
situations they cannot control. Though they choose to act responsibly—
attuned to public safety, technically competent, and quickly informing their
managers of positive and negative results—their managers may choose to
act based on other concerns. For example, the day before the Challenger
space shuttle exploded, NASA and Morton Thiokol managers decided that
the O-ring data just presented were inconclusive. The launch had already
been postponed by bad weather several times; launch delays had received
considerable media attention because the first “teacher in space” was a
member of the shuttle crew. President Reagan’s State of the Union
address was also scheduled for the following day. His prewritten speech
contained references to the Challenger already being launched. These
managers decided that the launch would proceed as scheduled.
In preparation for being involved in unethical situations you cannot
control, it is important to know your limits (Figure 1.1). If one or more of
the ethical dilemmas discussed in the last section occur at your place of
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A Personal Engineering Ethics Threshold 19
Figure 1.1 Dworshak Dam in Idaho. Determining your personal engineering ethics threshold
for action may resemble waiting for a dam to burst.
Courtesy U.S.Army Corps of Engineers.
employment, do you still want to work there? If you personally have kept
up your professional responsibilities, should you stay? Other engineering
ethics textbooks, written by engineers or philosophers without industrial
engineering experience, advocate internal or external whistleblowing. This
is impractical advice for the rank-and-file engineer, who may be support-
ing a family and may be financially tied to his or her work position.
Certainly, this engineer has the right to practice his profession.
What is your personal engineering ethics threshold for action? As illus-
trated by the 10 anonymous case studies in Chapter 16, there are many
answers to this question. In each case, an engineer was extremely troubled
about an unethical work situation and resolved the situation in a unique
way, whether by leaving the company, leaving the field, fighting for internal
change, or minimizing interaction with the offending party. It is up to you
to decide your own threshold. Because the probability is high that you may
work in such an environment, it is recommended that you know your
threshold before you start working full time.
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