As a student in an engineering ethics class, it's difficult to relate to the case studies. The course material makes sense, yet, the applications are seldomly relevant to our lives.
Many of us learn by doing, by seeing first things work first hand. Lab classes are a great examples of how to drive home engineering principles and concepts.
Professional practice and ethical dilemmas are not concepts that can be entered into a spreadsheet. They must be practiced, they must be discussed and considered often in a group. It is interesting to witness the different perspectives amongst a class when faced with a dilemma.
However, I still had trouble relating to the engineering team involved with the Challenger Space Shuttle or the Quebec bridge failure. I've never had to blow the whistle. I hadn't even practiced as an engineer yet nor been a part of a technical team. If I don't relate to the information then it easily escapes me.
This is my reason for writing this article. We have all had our personal ethics challenged. It is often what shapes us as human beings. I am not referring to group mentality or ethics of a team. Thus I will detail an experience about personal challenges to my ethics in professional practice.
What better profession to investigate than that of a technical sales professional.
An Industry Introduction
In this discussion, my industry appears very poor and the structure seems very ill thought. However, do realize the industry is vital to society, rewarding and has continually improved itself. I am proud to have practiced within it. However, do realize that context does not fit in a discussion of moral challenges and ethical dilemmas.
The industry is based on two commodities that are publicly traded and highly volatile. There are boom years in which product and service providers seem to be punishing customers with pricing. However, there are also bust years in which these clients ruthlessly drive down pricing to break-even levels in order to harvest more resources.
Often material and service providers accept break even pricing, waiting for a boom cycle and an opportunity to ramp up pricing relentlessly.
Unfortunately the resources are very mature and overall margins have become very low over the last 20 years. This, of course, drives product and supplier margins lower. Overall a very competitive environment is created with very low margins.
Another major factor is the high dollar amount for the products and services. It is not uncommon to have a person directly responsible for a budget of $80,000 to $250,000 per day.
The employees responsible for such decisions are often contractors. They are most often non professionals, rarely trained in ethical dilemmas nor are they bound to any sort of code of ethics.
In addition, the account managers responsible for revenue are highly rewarded and highly regarded if successful. Often methods are not questioned and it is not uncommon for each to have an expense account in the order of $2000 to $5000 per month.
Do note, this is one view of many different lights on this industry. Regardless it is hard not to recognize this as an environment ripe for corruption and manipulation.
Professional Ethics: Actual Accounts
So with that industry in mind lets look at a few real life moral dilemmas. By the way these examples are not made up and have actually taken place - names have been changed. Take some time to discuss these examples in a group and have fun with the different perspectives.
CASE STUDY 1
Susan is a Professional Engineer and provides services that she wishes to sell to Bill. Bill is a representative for a company that requires such services. However, there are a number of service providers that are Susan's competitors. All are attempting to sell services to Bill.
Unfortunately there is not much difference amongst the quality of the service providers, including Susan's. Thus it is very hard to gain Bill's work with pricing as all providers have roughly the same cost structure.
Susan invites Bill out to a hockey game as a way of building a relationship. Afterwards Susan and Bill are out for drinks among a number of other industry people they both know.
It is well known that Susan will be picking up the tab. Bill invites others to partake in drinks with Bill and Susan. The guests drinks are placed on a tab that Susan has started.
Susan's begins to feel used, and informs Bill that she is going to leave the party soon. Bill asks Susan for $500 cash to take care of drinks for the rest of the evening. Susan is worried that if she does not comply her chances of winning the work will diminish.
CASE STUDY 2
Sammy is providing services for Judith who is representing a company as the prime contractor. Sammy's staff has informed him that Judith has a supervisory employee that is often absent during the work and not acting as prime contractor for the operation.
Sammy knows that Judith and the supervisory employee are close. Sammy fears that approaching Judith will jeopardize the work and he chose to turn a blind eye.
At a later date the employee's absence is discovered. Judith is now very upset with Sammy's choice to keep this to himself. She also feels that Sammy has breached a trusting relationship. Sammy is frustrated that Judith is holding him responsible for the conduct of her employee.
As redemption for withholding the information Judith has suggested a large gift is owed. Sammy fears the work is in jeopardy if he does not comply. The loss of the work would represent a severe economic struggle for Sammy's company.
CASE STUDY 3
Connie currently sells approximately $18,000,000 worth of products to a company that Bart works for. Bart is the purchasing manager for that company.
It is well know that Connie's company, and her two competitors, act largely as "middlemen". All sell the commodity product of known cost and they charge a mark up for marketing and stocking the product. Thus a real lack of pricing competition.
Competitor A offers Bart substantial gifts to win some or most of the work. Bart refuses.
A month later Competitor B offers Bart a percent of his sales commission. Bart replies that he will consider the offer.
Bart then approaches Connie with the offer from Competitor B. Bart suggests that Connie must match the offer to retain the account. Connie fears she will lose the account if she does not comply.
A Suggested Methodology
Most ethical problems can be solved with common sense. However it is the ethical dilemma that causes difficulties. Your code of ethics is a very useful source to help solve these sorts of problems.
As a useful guide line for solving such problems the following will help:
Do note that step one of a solution is very often approaching the wrong doing party and ensuring they are aware of wrong doing and the consequences. From there an alternate solution suitable to both parties often results.
Also note, in the rare case where a stand off results, the engineer must consider further action that also increases personal jeopardy. Do realize that engineers are expected to act with full knowlege of their action and accept responsibility for their judgement.
Therefore "leaking" or reporting information anonymously is highly discouraged. If you report this type of situation to your professional association, then "responsible disclosure" will be expected in order to avoid reporting for personal gain.
Let's Wrap It Up
Part of the purpose of sharing these actual accounts is to show the magnitude complexity. There are often more than one party with questionable morals and ethics. Imagine the considerations of a criminal judge on a daily basis.
It is very important to choose your own personal ethical and moral boundaries. They will shape the quality of your person.
An important word of warning. Do not set your ethical boundaries based on the actions of others ("I'm not as bad as Joe"). You will always find someone with poorer boundaries and you will always end up second worst.