Engineering and Ethics

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Case B:

Engineer A contracts to serve as a consultant to a federal environmental agency for the development of an overall hazardous waste remedial strategy. Under the contract with the federal agency, Engineer A agrees to provide basic consulting services along with an understanding that the federal agency may request additional services at a later date. Nothing is contained in the contract between Engineer A and the agency concerning other work for other clients. Two years following completion of basic services to the federal agency, Engineer A is retained to provide environmental consulting services by a major industrial corporation which has been deemed by the federal agency to be responsible in a dispute over the clean-up of a hazardous waste site. Following the execution of its contract with the corporation, Engineer A is contacted by the federal environmental agency and is asked to provide consulting services to the agency per Engineer A's original understanding with the agency in connection with the specific hazardous waste site of the major industrial corporation which is now a client of Engineer A. Engineer A informs the federal agency that the performance of such services would constitute a conflict of interest and declines to perform the services requested.

Question:

Was it unethical for Engineer to agree to perform services to the industrial corporation under the facts without the prior consent of the federal agency?

References:

I.1. – Engineers, in the fulfillment of their duties, shall: Hold paramount with respect to human rights the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

II.1.c. - Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code.

II.4.a. - Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services.

III.4. - Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve.

III.5. - Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.

III.8.b. - Engineers shall not use association with a nonengineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.

Discussion:

This particular case regarding a conflict of interest, offers a conflict of interest in itself: The engineer in question is bound by the code of business ethics and potentially contractual silence regarding operations at the company for which his contract has recently expired, when he is approached by the federal environmental agency to fulfill his prior contractual obligation of honoring the agencies request for additional consulting services. However, they wish for the engineer to offer his services in order to help direct an investigation against unethical environmental activities perpetrated by the company. It can be reasonably inferred from the case description that the engineer in question knew of the unethical environmental practices before his date of hire with said company. Therefore, the question for this case, in particular, becomes this: Is it more ethical for the engineer to break his professionally, ethically and possibly contractually obligated code of silence regarding the distribution of potentially confidential operations information without prior consent of his former client? Or, is it more ethical for the engineer to break said code of silence in accordance with his ethical obligations to the safety, health, and welfare of the public, in addition to his ethical obligation to not use association with a corporation as a “cloak” for unethical acts?

Despite the number of conflicting references that can be cited from the NSPE code of ethics, this case really only has two different options that the engineer in question can choose: They can either choose to go back to work for the federal environmental agency and divulge the information they seek in order to indict his former client, or, they can choose to remain silent on the issue and deny the agencies request for further consulting services on this particular project, citing a conflict of interest. The engineer in this case study has chosen the second option of remaining silent on the issue and citing a conflict of interest. The option he has chosen fulfills only one out of six of the above referenced sections of the NSPE code of ethics, in that it complies with NSPE code of ethics section III, article 4, which states: “Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve.”

The first option given, the option to go back to work as a consultant for the federal environmental agency and divulge the necessary information for an indictment of the engineer's previous client, fulfills five out of six of the above-referenced sections from the NSPE code of ethics. The first is section I, article 1, which states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their duties shall: Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” In choosing to aid and abet a company that has been deemed liable for damages caused due to unethical environmental behaviors, the engineer in question is himself complicit in these acts. The second is section II, article 1c, which states, “Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code.” While this portion of the ethics code may seem to be similar in scope with section III, article 4, which was fulfilled in the previous option, the final clause of this article of the ethics code stipulates that the engineer reveal the information in question should it be required by law or the code of ethics itself. While it was not required by law that the engineer divulge information leading to this company’s possible indictment, his complicity in the act of harming the health and well-being of the public renders his cooperation with the federal agency imperative should he wish to conduct his business in an ethical fashion. The third reference fulfilled by this option is section II, article 4a, which states, “Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services.” In entering into a contract with the company after the completed federal contract, the engineer should have notified the company, his potential employer, of a possible conflict of interest regarding his employment there, specifically because of their liability in recent environmental issues. Better and more ethical still would have been if the engineer in question would never have bid on a contract with this company (given his previous occupation) in the first place. The fourth reference fulfilled by the first option is section III, article 5, which states, “Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.” Not only was the engineer’s employment by the company unethical, given the circumstances, but his seeking of employment with the company was also unethical as well. The fifth and final reference fulfilled by the first option is section III, article 8b, which states, “Engineers shall not use association with a nonengineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.” The case in question is a prime example of the engineer using his association with the corporation in question to declare a conflict of interest, in an attempt to cloak either his complicity in unethical acts, or an attempt to retain any compensation or professional pedigree that could be lost, should he divulge the information the federal environmental agency is seeking.

Conclusion:

Engineer A would be acting in a far more ethical manner, in accordance with the NSPE code of ethics, were he to accept the offer to provide consultation to the federal environmental agency, in an effort to investigate his previous client, who has been deemed liable for unethical conduct.