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Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

  • 1.  Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-11-2017 03:35 PM
    Dear ASCE Members,

    I hope to stimulate conversations on ethical dilemmas that engineers may face. So, please consider the following engineering ethical dilemma and contribute to the advancement of our profession by providing your thoughts on the situation George faces. Thank you.

    Best Regards,

    George is an engineering student working during the summer for a state DOT as an assistant construction inspector. One day, John the engineer George is assisting goes into a contractor's supply trailer and picks us a radial power saw in good working order. John says to the nearby construction superintendent, "This saw looks like a piece of junk. I bet you were about to throw it away. Should I just take it off your hands?" The superintendent looked John over and said, "Go ahead and just take it." John on his way out of the trailer picked up an extension cord and then put his goodies into his state pickup. George later described the situation to other engineering construction inspectors and they said, "Oh, that is just how John is. He has been that way for decades." George then mentioned the situation to the district construction engineer who ignored what George was telling him. George isn't satisfied with the lack of interest the construction inspectors have in addressing this situation.

    What advice do you have for George?

    Steve Starrett Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, F.EWRI, F.ASCE
    Kansas State University
    President - ASCE Environmental and Water Resources Institute

  • 2.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-12-2017 07:46 PM
    George is correct to feel "unsatisfied" with the response of the state DOT construction inspectors and the district engineer. It seems obvious that the incident George witnessed is likely to be in violation of State Conflict of Interest (COI) Laws which cover "accepting" or "requesting" any "gift" or "favor" based on public position (such as a State DOT construction inspector).   The ethical dilemma for George is whether he pursues the reporting of this incident further than the state DOT District Engineer. 

    Part of the problem for George is that he is missing information:
    • George does not know if the District Engineer is planning to take action or if there is already some action being taken against the person violating the COI Laws. It may be inappropriate for the District Engineer to divulge such information to George.
    • George may not be aware of the proper measures he can take in reporting a violation of COI Laws,   In most states, the State Ethics Commission (or similar office) can advise George with regard to this incident: e.g. what actions the District Engineer might be taking; the limits of Georges responsibility to pursue further action; the potential implications of pursuing further action, and filing a complaint.
    By contacting the State Ethics Commission, George can gain more information prior to taking additional action.   This process would help George become more educated about such issues and (in my opinion) and would make George a better Engineer (whether he decides to take further action or not),

    Gregory Newman P.E., M.ASCE
    Worthington MA

  • 3.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-12-2017 07:47 PM
    Please do not follow John's example. You should never accept a material gift from a Contractor. A handshake, a friendly smile, and may be a rare cup of coffee is all that is acceptable. Do not get onto a slippery slope.
    That will help you maintain your professional effectiveness and the authority of your position.

    Narendra Bhatia P.E., M.ASCE
    Ann Arbor MI
    (734) 994-0317

  • 4.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-12-2017 07:50 PM
    This will be a long response.
    First of all I have been fortunate to have worked over 30 years as a Civil Engineer out in the field performing inspection and construction administration, being the on-site engineering manager (OEM), essentially monitoring the contractor's activities, for the Engineer of Record (EOR) and the Owner. The projects I worked on as OEM included Wastewater treatment plants, multiple municipal utility installation and road reconstruction projects and a half dozen municipal and industrial landfill projects.   In addition my career included engineering project management and becoming the Engineer of Record on projects ranging from $300,000 to over $5,000,000. 

    Just like in this Case Study, I worked summers as an intern construction inspector, while attaining my BSCE.

    Constructing civil projects is a collaborative effort between the Owner, his design engineer and the contractor.  In my experience, the vast majority of contractors are honest people who simply want to give the Owner defined finished product and be able to built it at a resonable profit. The plans and specifications need to be well written, without ambiguities, for the contractor to perform the work for the amount stated in their bid. I have also seen contractors that were not honest, but that is a different topic than what is being discussed here.      

    In a typical construction project the on-site engineer is responsible for observing that the contractor is performing the work in accordance with the plans and specifications.  The Engineer of Record in most instances has to certify in writing that the project was built exactly as shown on the Record Drawings. The EOR is completely dependent on the integrity of the on-site employees to be working solely for the EOR. If an EOR employee is receiving any form of favors from the contractor, the contractor will eventually expect some favor in return.   

    Eric King P.E., M.ASCE
    Pearland TX

  • 5.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-21-2017 01:28 PM

    George is in a difficult situation.  My opinion is that George has satisfied his ethical responsibility by reporting John's activity to the district construction engineer.  There may be an investigation in progress that would be jeopardized if information about it were shared with George.  By reporting to the district construction engineer, the responsibility for any unethical conduct by John has been transferred to the district construction engineer.  From this point forward, George needs to focus on his work.

  • 6.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-21-2017 04:28 PM
    If there were an active investigation, George would have been brought in as a witness.

    Public agency employees, especially entry level folks, need to decide from the start they will follow strict ethical standards. In this example, there seems to be an agency "culture" of overlooking employees accepting gifts from those they provide oversight. George could be seeing the tip of the fraud iceberg. If employees get caught up in this type of culture, they could pay dearly with their careers, retirement pension, fines and/or jail time. The excuse that "everyone" does it is not a legal defense that will get you off. Contractor employees are not "friends" of the inspection staff and inspectors need to keep arms-length away from them. If you accept something for personal gain from a contractor, then you have crossed the line.  

    George can report this to his superiors, HQ investigative staff, and on Federal jobs, the US DOT Inspector General's office. Such reports are confidential

    If there is new and significant Federal funding for infrastructure, there will be greater scrutiny on how the money is managed including quality of inspection and sampling and testing of materials. Investigations typically go back into projects records for several years and "old buddies" will be more than willing to turn against you for a lighter sentence for themselves. If the agency culture isn't an honest one, a lot of people will eventually get caught. 

    Allen Masuda P.E., M.ASCE
    Plainfield IL

  • 7.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-22-2017 12:18 PM

    Unfortunately, a side effect of George's ethical behavior in reporting the infraction, and it being ignored by his supervisor, is he has made himself a potential threat to the on-going practice of fraud.  His supervisor has control over his annual reviews, his salary and raises and his time off.  More openly, there are several people in the chain that would rather he not speak about the infraction any further and could take more permanent steps.  Once the bribes start, there is no good end to them.


    I would recommend to George that he find a more ethical employer, even if it means a slight pay reduction.  There are many out there that preach ethics to a T!  And it has been my privilege to work for three of them.


    Dan Chase

    1327 Del Norte Road Camarillo CA 93010-9123
    Office Phone: (805) 981-0706 Ext 103

    Direct Phone: 805 322-1665

    Cell: 805 233 0900
    Fax: (805) 981-0251




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  • 8.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-23-2017 02:43 PM
    NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) devotes significant time and resources to delving into ethical dilemmas such as this one.?? This is one of the reasons I have always been a member of both ASCE and NSPE.?? I would be interested to see what the NSPE Board of Ethical Review has to say on this situation, although my sense is that they will agree with many of the statements made here today.?? I will forward this string to that committee and see if they have some comments to add.?? Cheers.
    Greg Latreille, PE | Associate
    BBFM             Engineers, Inc.
    510 L Street, Suite 200 | Anchorage, Alaska 99501
    Main: (907)274-2236 | Direct: (907)270-2242 | Web: www.bbfm.com |

  • 9.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-23-2017 02:45 PM
    Our engineering ethics standards in the ASCE canon establish minimum guidelines for ethical conduct.  Based on the narrative provided It is obvious that George has witnessed theft by an associate using state owned equipment to transport stolen items.  If George conveyed what he witnessed to his supervisor, he has exercised the minimum ethical responsibility in reporting the matter to one in his immediate charge.

    If those in authority do nothing further on the matter and if George desires to not only exercise minimal ethical responsibility but to exercise appropriate moral responsibility George will seek to dis-associate himself from a corrupt group and seek different employment.   When he completes his separation report from his current employer he can then further document this incident and explain that it led to his resignation.  He will ultimately find a better opportunity and be able to conduct himself without worry of further un-ethical behavior by undisciplined associates.in the future.       

    As a structural engineer with 40 years of practice under my belt and having two sons who are registered engineering professionals I have taught them that maintaining ethical standards keeps you "out-of-trouble" while exercising moral standards allows you "to do the right thing".


    Daniel Witcher P.E., M.ASCE
    Bristol TN

  • 10.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-23-2017 04:28 PM
    I would not respond by leaving based on one crew and one district of a DOT.  George can go to the DOT's I.G.  There are typically several crews in a district and several districts in a DOT.  There is a saying that in order for that type of behavior to flourish, all that needs to happen is for good people to remain silent.  If George requests it of the I.G. they would probably arrange for him to be moved to another district as well.

    Stephen Hemphill P.E., M.ASCE
    Semi-Retired (and a former DCE)
    Rio Rancho NM

  • 11.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-24-2017 09:58 AM
    The biggest failure in the Engineering community today is the fact that we are our own Police. We are to report in detail failures in ethics that other Engineers do. This does mean that we can become a target of discrimination by other Engineers that are friends with the Engineer we are turning in. If that does happen then they are just as guilty as the person being turned in. 

    Personally I have had to turn in other Engineers and clients for doing illegal activity. Keep in mind that ethics not only has to do with our current job but what we observe. The health and safety of the public is our main concern. Anything that puts that at risk means we are to report it. I had a client illegally cleaning out a sewer lagoon and dumping it into a hole. I turned them into the State for multiple violations. They paid a fine and I got Sued by my client. I did nothing wrong and two years of fighting in court to deal with it. I would do it all over again if I had too, for the simple fact that what I did was right and they were breaking many laws. 

    My point is prepare yourself for the worst, while doing what is right. There are bad people out there and some don't take it well when confronted. 

    George Miles P.E., M.ASCE
    Alligator Engineering Inc
    New Smyrna Beach FL

  • 12.  RE: Engineering Ethics Case Study 2.

    Posted 03-24-2017 05:39 PM
    One of the reasons that others tell George that "that is just the way John is" may be that no one has ever taken action to correct or report John's unethical behaviors.  If this has been going on for decades as George's colleagues indicated, the risk for the DOT's reputation and function continues to increase with each ethical lapse.  Therefore, the benefits outweigh the risks of George continuing to raise the issue.  However, as an intern he might not be experienced enough to know what tools are available (e.g., state ethics committee, ombudsman, freedom of information laws, whistleblower protections.)  Also, as a student intern, George may be less concerned about keeping his current job and  more concerned about harming his future employment prospects.  He should weigh the response of the DOT as an indicator of whether or not he wants to work there after getting his degree.

    Fortunately, George has his whole career ahead of him, and there are other options for employment outside of this district DOT.   The worst case would be if a well-connected manager at his former employer attempted to tarnish his reputation to other hiring managers.  That risk would be low, especially if George is not geographically confined to the same district.

    Steven Splitek, P.E., PMP, ENV SP
    Denver, CO