Conflict of Interest for Engineers

Mike Grossman
Professional Engineer
No items found.
Minute Read
April 4, 2024
Conflict of Interest for Engineers

The PPE Headquarters promise

We strive to help you make smarter exam preparation decisions. We adhere to an editorial integrity, so this article does not contain references to affiliate products or services.

Conflicts of interest are a part of practical professional practice for engineers. They are not something to hide from or to avoid. You only need to know how to handle these situations in a professional and ethical manner.

What is a conflict of interest?

In professional engineering, a conflict of interest arises when an engineer's personal interests or loyalties clash with their professional obligations.

This can happen when one party is in a position to make a decision that affects two or more opposing parties' interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation.

This can also happen when a professional's judgment on a project is swayed by something other than what's best for the project or the client.

They are not always defined as bad situations. A conflict of interest can be handled professionally; however, these occasions are rare and ripe for abuse.

All parties may be aware of the conflict (informed consent) and should take measures to protect themselves or have placed enough trust in the decision maker.

The conflict of interest is particularly serious when it is not disclosed and also when the decision maker stands to gain.

An engineer's primary interest is to protect the public and serve clients honestly. Secondary interests are personal desires like financial gain, career advancement, or helping friends.

Conflict of interest examples

There are many situations that can lead to conflicting interests, including:

  • Multiple clients: Working for two clients on competing projects.
  • Personal gain: Acting as a contractor on a project and acting as the professional engineer that selects the contractor.
  • Previous employment: Sharing a previous employer's confidential information to influence their current project.
  • Moonlighting: Working another similar job without disclosing it to each employer.
  • Contractual Agreements: An agreement with one party may restrict the professional from fulfilling their professional obligations.

The APEGA President Dr. Jim Gilliland, P. Eng., stepped down from his position in November 2014, due to a potential conflict of interest. Gilliland was an employee of Williams Engineering, a consulting firm which is recently named in a provincial court case involving breaches of the Alberta Building Code.  

Maintaining the integrity of APEGA as a self-regulating entity is critical to maintaining our social licence. I have tremendous faith in the network of highly dedicated volunteers and employees that discharge the association's regulatory functions on a daily basis. I believe that by stepping down, APEGA's integrity can't be questioned as they move forward.” - Gilliland

At first, you might ask how is this a conflict?  

It seems this is about maintaining the integrity of the profession. Or that an engineering regulator pushed Gilliland demanded that Gilliland steps down. However, Gilliland's position had significant influence within the Alberta regulator, and it is easy to see a situation in which a party could claim a conflict of interest.  

Conflict mitigation

Mitigation efforts often include:

  • Removal: The best method is often to remove one of the opposing interests. For example, an elected professional selling stocks before taking office.
  • Disclosure: Ensuring all parties are aware of the conflict.
  • Recusal: Self-disqualification or choosing not to be on the condo board in which a relative resides.
  • 3rd Party: Hiring an independent third party to make decisions that may introduce conflicting interests.

These are great solutions, and utilizing these mitigation means as early as possible is critical. You cannot attempt to implement one of these strategies as a defence to an accusation of a conflict.  

You as a professional must implement a measure as an avoidance of a conflict of interest.  

Exam Tip: A secret commission is essentially a bribe or kickback. The subject typically refers to an Owner-Engineer relationship and can result in a criminal conviction and jail time.

It is not common to encounter a conflict of interest in the early stages of professional practice, but you will at some point in your career. The best solution is to remain proactive and knowledgeable of these conflicts of interest so you can manage them professionally.

Hilarious Engineer Jokes: The Updated 2024 Edition

Hilarious Engineer Jokes: The Updated 2024 Edition

Hilarious Jokes + Funny Engineering Memes + Crazy Videos. An Engineer walks into a bar and says, “Give me a beer before ...

How To Ace Your Engineering Job Interview

How To Ace Your Engineering Job Interview

Here are some crucial tips that could make-or-break your success when it comes time for your interview.

Master's Degree in Engineering: 9 Things You Need to Know

Master's Degree in Engineering: 9 Things You Need to Know

Ten things to consider before going for a Master’s of Science related to your engineering field. 1. Higher starting salary.