Kenneth L. Carper

Commentary On

Inspection and oversight responsibilities have become critical functions of technical professionals. Modern society is increasingly vulnerable to severe effects of failures and accidents. A single structural connection failure in a long-span roof can threaten the lives of thousands of occupants. A single industrial accident, such as the methyl isocyanate gas leak experienced in Bhopal, India in December 1984, can cause tens of thousands of casualties. Hazardous wastes can cause irreparable environmental damage (Gross, et. al. 1989, Carper 1989).

Society has recognized the need for increased protection. Legislation has been introduced to protect the environment and to enhance public safety. These laws exist because some controls must be mandated and enforced. Unless they are enforced diligently and equitably, the profit motive will control to the detriment of the environment and the public welfare. The competitive market will unfairly penalize those corporations that adopt costly environmental protection or public safety policies.

Inspection by a competent, licensed professional is critical to the effectiveness of enforcement (Carper 1984). Insofar as possible, the inspecting engineer should be autonomous, working under an administrative arrangement that permits the inspector to act independently.

Scott Lewis, however, finds himself in a much less desirable situation. He has been assigned the task of inspecting his employer's operation. Placing an employee in such an oversight position is fraught with conflicts. The employee is under the constant threat of potential pressure from superiors within the organization, and is often overly conscious of the economic implications of the negative reports that may be required by strict interpretation of regulations. The inspector's own job is on the line. Indeed, employees have been fired for subordination when they were conscientiously performing their inspection assignments (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp. 6-7, 216-217).

The situation of self-inspection places those assigned the task in a very awkward position. Similar ethical challenges are encountered by the Accountant who must audit the records of a corporation. The Accountant who submits a report that is truthful may incur the wrath of the client corporation that has retained the Accountant. To a certain extent, there is constant implied pressure to perform a service that pleases the client. This conflict has been addressed in the accounting profession through strict adherence to a professional code of ethics and through diligent enforcement of legal requirements.

Laws are involved in Scott Lewis' case as well. There are public safety and environmental impact issues at stake. Scott should discuss his concerns with Tom Treehorn, including the potential consequences of breaking the law. He should vigorously object to Tom's intentions, appealing to the Code of Ethics for support, if necessary. Reference to the Code of Ethics can be very useful when an engineer is confronted by such pressure from an employer or client (Evans 1988).

If such appeals are ignored, Scott should definitely threaten Tom with a report to Tom's superior. If Tom receives support from the management above him, Scott should be prepared to go outside the organization. Whistleblowing is justified when laws are being violated. In fact, Scott is obligated by his Code of Ethics to go to the proper authorities when his employer is in deliberate violation of regulations, especially when the public welfare is threatened (Elliston et al 1985, Pletta 1987). For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers has a policy statement that requires its members to report unsafe conditions discovered in the course of their work, even if the client for whom they are performing services objects.

An important principle in this case is the principle of universalizability (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp. 37-38). Scott should confront Tom with the implications of everyone acting as he proposes to do. What if every chemical corporation were to ignore regulations regarding disposal? What if each supervisor were allowed to do it his or her own way? Even if each were thoughtful and conscientious, and even if each felt they knew best how to safely dispose of the waste, wouldn't the resulting chaos be unmanageable?

Scott should especially be concerned when Tom refers to the economic benefit of following his plans. Tom's true motive is revealed here; it is the profit motive.

Later, when problems do arise, a class-action suit is brought against the corporation. In the court proceedings, Scott must be truthful. This will include giving an account of the part he played in the inspection and in helping Tom violate the law. This will be complicated by his new position with a competing corporation.

It should be noted that if Scott were a Professional Engineer at the time of the violation, he may now be subject to personal litigation, and to prosecution by the state in which he is licensed. He may also be subject to disciplinary action by his professional engineering society.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Carper, Kenneth L. 1984. "Limited Field Inspection Vs. Public Safety," Civil Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 54, No. 5, May, pp. 52-55.
  2. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering, Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 26-28.
  3. Evans, R. J. 1988. "Commentary on the Code of Ethics," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 114, No. 2, April, pp. 148-156.
  4. Elliston, Frederick, J. Keenan, P. Lockhart and J. Van Schaick 1985. Whistleblowing Research: Methodological and Moral Issues, Praeger Publishers, New York, NY.
  5. Gross, John L., J. Smith, and R. Wright 1989. "Ashland Tank: Collapse Investigation," Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 3, No. 3, August, pp. 144-162.
  6. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 6-7, 37-38, 216-217.
  7. Pletta, Dan H. 1987. "'Uninvolved' Professionals and Technical Disasters," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 113, No. 1, January, pp. 23-31.

Dan Dorset has been provided with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the extent of his personal commitment to professionalism. He can act in his own self-interest, or at some personal cost, he can choose to act in the interest of public safety. The easier, less-costly alternative violates company policy and may increase the risk of accidents. The right thing to do is clear.

Unfortunately, an attractive compromise has been presented. Jerry Taft's offer would relieve Dan of any personal cost and would compromise professional principles only slightly.

Dan's employer has funded his travel to supervise installation of equipment. The location of the project is near a ski resort. Dan's vacation plans at the resort were predicated on the assumption that there would be no delays in the project. He didn't provide for a single day of contingencies when making these plans.

Construction engineering projects always involve scheduling uncertainties. Dan surely recognizes that planning with no contingencies was his responsibility. His concern for public safety, along with acknowledgment of deficient planning on his part, should encourage him to eliminate any options that imply increased risk to the client or the public, even if these risks are of very low probability.

Of the options listed at the end of Part I, only the first is directly driven by the moral principles of professionalism: Decline Jerry Taft's offer and stay until the job is complete. The second option also has some merit. A call to the home office may suggest some additional alternatives. For example, Dan's supervisor, Ed Addison may offer some additional vacation days or other compensation, or he may be able to suggest ways to circumvent the immediate installation of safety-critical components of the equipment so that other construction scheduling is not unnecessarily delayed.

This option, not listed at the end of Part I, deserves some consideration. Perhaps the installation of the final two units could simply be delayed altogether until after Dan's vacation. Not enough information is given to assess the possibility of this option. It may be that the project schedule would be severely impacted by such a delay, but creative people might be able to find an acceptable compromise. Ed Addison should feel some obligation to assist Dan in meeting both his professional and personal commitments, insofar as possible.

In Part II, Ed Addison exhibits some very disturbing attitudes for an engineer in a management position. Ed is clearly motivated by the desire to avoid personal responsibility for management decisions. He would rather not know when company policies or professional responsibilities are being circumvented. This attitude is not likely to inspire confidence with his subordinates, or to encourage them to accept responsibility.

Complacency and a cavalier attitude regarding professional responsibility is contagious within organizations, particularly when management sets this tone. Rubin and Banick, in their outstanding review of the Kansas City Hyatt pedestrian walkway collapse, refer to the complacent attitude of the design engineer. In this case, 114 people were killed and another 200 seriously injured, partly due to this complacency.

Rubin and Banick ask: How can their conduct be explained?

An understanding of their conduct is perhaps the most important lesson that can be drawn from the Hyatt collapse because it represents, more than anything else, a human failure to which all professionals are subject. Some succumb, some do not; most are just plain lucky in that they do not get caught. Our errors are picked up by others, or although our errors go undetected, no tragedy ensues. Complacency is a human failure. It creeps into a professional's approach to practice as the newness, excitement, and other early rewards of the profession fade. The professional becomes indifferent and stops worrying and agonizing. He takes shortcuts and gets away with it, and then takes more shortcuts. It becomes a way of life. This is human. The shock of an occasional failure brings him to his senses and forces him to reevaluate his conduct. (Rubin & Banick 1987)

Ed Addison's attitudes are particularly disturbing since Rancott's equipment has experienced some recent failures. The possibility of failure should be more than an abstract concept to Ed, and he has a responsibility to convey the seriousness of inspection to his young subordinate, Dan Dorsett.

Apparently, it is all right for Ed's subordinates to take risks, but he won't. His cautious approach to risk-taking involves concern for his "own neck," rather than concern for public safety, should something "go wrong." This self-interest based concern is also evident in his comments about skiing, although there is no ethical conflict here. The risks one takes while skiing are directly related to one's own well-being. The risks taken by professionals involving the welfare of others fall into an entirely different moral category.

Complacency is a dangerous attitude for an engineer. But engineers in the corporate setting, particularly in management positions, can become insulated from the public they serve. Professional responsibility may become an abstract concept, unrelated to day-to-day decisions.

The dialogue presented in Part II certainly does not suggest a reevaluation of the moral rightness of Dan's decision. Ed is not a worthy role model for professional responsibility. The safety of society depends to a great extent on a professional engineering community that takes its responsibilities much more seriously than Ed Addison does. The profession has a long tradition of engineers who have spent sleepless nights contemplating the risks associated with their judgments (Petroski 1985). Were this not so, there would be far more failures of engineered facilities and products.

Ed Addison says, "...the bottom line is satisfied customers and keeping Rancott, Inc. out of trouble..." This statement is absolutely untrue. The primary guiding principle for engineers is to "use their knowledge and skill for the advancement of human welfare." (Evans 1988). The Code of Ethics further instructs engineers to "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties." Thus, the engineer's ethical responsibilities extend far beyond the employer and the client. Engineers are more than employees of a corporation. They are licensed professionals, trusted by society to maintain this focus on the public welfare (Rubin and Banick 1987).

Perhaps it should be noted here that other professions may operate under entirely different ethical guidelines. For example, attorneys are bound by their Code of Ethics to always act in their client's interest (Carper 1990). This concept could have disastrous implications for public safety, should it be adopted by the engineering profession.

Ed Addison would like to avoid failure. However, he interprets this task as his responsibility to "keep Rancott, Inc. out of trouble," rather than a responsibility to protect the public welfare. The danger in this attitude toward failure is that it confuses liability with professional responsibility. The engineer who is motivated merely by the desire to avoid liability may simply address the problem by writing contracts that transfer responsibilities to others, and by purchasing more insurance to insulate the firm from the economic impact of failure. This approach alone is not in the interest of public safety, but it is all too common in the current litigious society. Traditionally, engineers have accepted the responsibilities of their profession, and have been diligently motivated by concerns for the public who will suffer when things go wrong.

In Part IV, the violation of company policy and compromised professional standards leads to a further deterioration of principles, as small compromises often do. The next step involves falsification of records. This is a definite complication, one that raises legal implications in addition to new ethical issues.

Part V asks us to consider the dilemma from a new perspective. Dan's situation is now the result of a new job assignment. In this case, he should insist on official orders from Ed Addison authorizing him to leave the first assignment prior to completion. This transfers responsibility to Ed; it will be good for him.

While asking for official orders, it might be in order for Dan to further discuss with Ed the ethical dimensions of his statements. He might include reference to the lessons Dan is learning from Ed's example. Perhaps Ed has become so insulated in his management position that he is no longer cognizant of his professional responsibilities that extend beyond enforcement of company policies. Perhaps he is unaware of his important influence on the professional development of his colleagues.

Part VI introduces the question of probability of outcome. The varying probabilities of various outcomes certainly ought to be a factor in making professional judgments among alternatives. It should always be recognized that these probabilities are estimates, and even if they prove to be accurate statistically, an outcome having a low predicted probability is still a possibility.

For this reason, the actual outcome should not necessarily be given greater weight than other alternative outcomes when reviewing the rightness or wrongness of a prior decision. While the consequences may be undesirable, the decision may have been morally correct, given the information available at the time the decision was made. Similarly, a positive outcome should not be used to justify a decision that was morally flawed.

Risk analysis is an important component of engineering (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). One contemporary engineer who specializes in risk analysis defines this activity as "assessing the probability of regret." Consideration of risk is something one should lose sleep over; it is not something to be taken lightly, as Dan is tempted to do, for personal convenience.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Carper, Kenneth L. 1990. "Ethical Considerations for the Forensic Engineer Serving as an Expert Witness," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 9, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, pp. 21-34.
  2. Evans, R. J. 1988. "Commentary on the Code of Ethics," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 114, No. 2, April, pp. 148-156.
  3. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 118-124.
  4. Petroski, Henry 1985. To Engineer is Human, St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, pp. 214-215.
  5. Rubin, Robert A. and Lisa A. Banick 1987. "The Hyatt Regency Decision: One View," Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 1, No. 3, August, pp. 161-167.

It is interesting to notice the language people use to justify unethical behavior. Plant Manager Edgar Owens refers to overlooking "mere technicalities," when he really means breaking established laws. He requests Marvin Johnson to "adjust" the report, when he really intends for Johnson to falsify scientific data.

The falsification of data is viewed by scientists and engineers to be an extremely serious breach of ethics. Marvin Johnson is being asked to compromise one of the most important moral concepts in science, truthfulness in reporting of scientific measurements. Should he consent to a false report, and should the incident come to light, his own personal career will be in grave jeopardy. The scientific and engineering community cannot survive unless its members can trust one another to present data truthfully.

Yet, Marvin Johnson finds himself in a very difficult position. His manager has raised the question of loyalty. The implication is that truthfulness will damage the company; fellow employees will suffer. Competitors will profit at the expense of Wolfog Manufacturing. The arguments given by Edgar Owens can be quite persuasive, and they are all too familiar in the corporate setting (Nelson and Peterson 1982). Regulations are often seen to be unrealistic or arbitrary. The assumption is often made that competitors must be falsifying data to meet these unrealistic expectations, so it is only wise business practice to do what everyone else is doing.

Much has been written about the pitfalls of misguided loyalty. While principled loyalty can be a commendable virtue, misguided loyalty has been responsible for many, many tragic moral disasters. When loyalty to a corporation, or a government, or an individual, requires the sacrifice of fundamental moral principles, such loyalty is not a virtue.

Engineers who find themselves in stressful situations like this should refer to their professional Code of Ethics. This can be a helpful, tangible tool in negotiations with their employers. (Carper 1991, Davis 1991). Certain fundamental ethical principles are embodied in the Codes of Ethics adopted by professional societies, and the embattled engineer can point to these principles, stating that his or her career as an engineer requires adherence to these principles. What Johnson is being asked to do is a violation of the canons of his profession.

The principle of universalizability is introduced in this case study. Immanuel Kant's "categorical imperative" provides this guidance:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

In this case, Johnson should not write an "adjusted report" unless he is truly willing to accept similar actions by all his colleagues in the scientific and engineering community when confronted by similar situations and similar pressure from their employers. Should Johnson consent to Edgar Owens' request, later self-analysis of his actions will bring the crisis of conscience experienced by others who have compromised their values in the interest of misguided loyalty.

One relevant example is the B. F. Goodrich case involving data falsification on critical brake and wheel assembly testing for Air Force attack aircraft (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, p.58). The first-hand account provided by Kermit Vandiver, a B. F. Goodrich employee, is very enlightening (Vandiver 1972).

Deborah Randle, the engineer who works for the Department of Natural Resources, will most certainly evaluate reports from the various corporations with the principle of universalizability in mind. How else can someone charged with global responsibility operate, and remain impartial? False data will be absolutely unacceptable to Randle. Again, engineers simply must be able to trust each other.

Should an unethical report be discovered, not only will Johnson's reputation be irreparably damaged, but the impact on Wolfog Manufacturing will also be significant. The case of emissions test data falsification by the Ford Motor Company shows the damage such behavior can do to a corporation (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp. 163-164). A review of the Ford case illustrates the fact that compromising ethics in the interest of loyalty can actually result in great damage to the very employer one is trying to protect.

It seems that Marvin Johnson has some thinking to do. It is probably not yet time to "blow the whistle" publicly. There are some moral principles and procedures involved in proper whistleblowing, and Johnson has not yet exhausted his avenues within the corporation (Elliston et al 1985). Indeed, Johnson has an excellent opportunity to provide some moral leadership to his colleagues by speaking out on the issue of scientific truthfulness. But engineers simply must refuse to work for corporations that place profit above scientific honesty. If Edgar Owens represents the moral stature of the Wolfog corporate management, then Wolfog Manufacturing is not a healthy environment for an honest engineer.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Carper, Kenneth L. 1991. "Engineering Code of Ethics: Beneficial Restraint on Consequential Morality," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 117, No. 3, July, pp. 250-257.
  2. Davis, Michael 1991. "Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, pp. 150-167.
  3. Elliston, Frederick, J. Keenan, P. Lockhart and J. van Schaick 1985. Whistleblowing Research: Methodological and Moral Issues, Praeger Publishers, New York, NY, pp.133-161.
  4. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 58, 163-164, 176.
  5. Nelson, C. and S. R. Peterson 1982. "The Engineer as Moral Agent," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 108, No. 1, January, pp. 1-5.
  6. Vandiver, Kermit 1972. "Why Should My Conscience Bother Me?" from In the Name of Profit, by Robert L. Heilbroner, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, pp. 3-31.
Commentary On

Several interesting ethical considerations are raised in this transportation engineering dilemma. The most prominent issue is the conflict between local interests and the interests of the public at large. Other topics that will be discussed in this commentary are: the potential value of effective organized public opposition, the role of the engineer in a governmental planning agency, and the emerging field of environmental ethics.

Transportation planners know that highways generate a great deal of local controversy, perhaps more than any other public works projects, with the exception of airports and nuclear power plants (Goldstein 1987).

"Roads are immensely popular with all those who do not live near them." (Lucas 1987)

Forest Drive has become a main traffic conduit. The population of Verdant County has grown substantially, and the volume of vehicular traffic on the highway has doubled in the past ten years. Public safety is threatened by the condition of the highway. Thus far, however, fatalities have been limited to drivers who were exceeding posted speed limits. The Verdant County Road Commission, motivated by concerns for public safety and liability, has decided to widen the roadway.

A local citizens' environmental group opposes widening Forest Drive, however, as the quality of the local environment will be diminished. The opposition group does not wish to see a number of healthy trees sacrificed, especially when the problem appears to be driver carelessness.

Moral theory can be employed to support either side in this conflict. Finding a solution entirely acceptable to both sides may not be possible, but the next step ought to be a series of public hearings in which all considerations are fully reviewed.

Objections, aired in appropriate public forums, can be of great value in arriving at the best planning solutions (Lucas 1987). Enlightened planners will not only welcome objections, but will assist in making the objections effective. Considering opposing points of view nearly always improves the quality of reasoned judgment. This process implies open communication and free access to relevant information by all parties.

Communication with the public is a difficult problem for the planner or engineer in itself, but the most important questions are (Goldstein 1987):

  1. How does a planner handle a situation where his client's values are far from his own?
  2. How is the planner to comport himself when engaged on a project which may be nationally (or regionally) highly beneficial but adversely affects a particular locality?
  3. How is the planner to form and express his judgment in matters involving the aggregation of preferences.

In the public forum, planning experts should go beyond a presentation of their recommendations. They should be willing to fully discuss all factors considered in reaching their conclusions, and should actively listen to informed criticism. During the discussions the planner should honestly express uncertainties in planning assumptions. The opposition will likely raise valid arguments, beyond those already presented. In this case, for example, Kevin Clearing will be asked to acknowledge that improved roads generate increased traffic, and he should be willing to honestly respond to this fact. Public hearings have little positive benefit when the opposition parties feel they have not been honestly received.

This raises the topic of the role of the professional engineer in a governmental agency. Governmental bodies are generally more concerned with those issues that affect large segments of the population, and tend to be less concerned with local interests that affect few citizens. The ethical planner will maintain sufficient independence to ensure that local interests are carefully considered. Grave injustices may otherwise be imposed on individuals for the benefit of the majority.

The subject of environmental ethics is also relevant to this case. Most planning engineers are aware that their decisions are environmental experiments as well as social experiments. Their role is as the agents of change. Often the environmental effects of planning decisions are irreversible.

Environmental ethics is a relatively new field of applied ethics, at least in Western philosophy (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). Western philosophers have traditionally held that humans alone have intrinsic value, and that the natural environment exists for the benefit of humankind. Environmental ethics questions whether morality is purely anthropocentric (human-centered). The environmental ethic suggests that trees (or spotted owls) may also have intrinsic value.

It should be noted that many environmentalists place the interests of humans far above that of objects in the natural environment and the interests of animals. Conservation of the natural environment and its resources can be justified on the basis of concern for future generations of humans who will have intrinsic value. This form of environmentalism is anthropocentric. Environmental conservationists do not necessarily ascribe intrinsic value to the natural environment.

It is not clear from Tom Richard's statement whether he bases his value for the threatened trees on a belief in their intrinsic value, or whether he wants to preserve natural beauty for future generations. A careful reading of his statement suggests the latter. However, it is likely that at least a few members of the opposition group will subscribe to the concepts of the new environmental moral theory. Kevin Clearing should be prepared to consider this viewpoint in the deliberations, which are sure to be lively and spirited.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Goldstein, Alfred 1987. "The Expert and the Public: Local Values and National Choice," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 25-50.
  2. Lucas, J. R. 1987. "The Worm and the Juggernaut: Justice and the Public Interest," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 51-65.M
  3. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 262-278.

This case study involves a Locally Unacceptable Land Use, sometimes called a LULU. Such planning confrontations have traditionally arisen over proposed projects deemed to be eyesores or nuisances. The public, however, has become more aware of the increasing risks to safety and health associated with contemporary hazardous land uses. Confrontations like this one are expected to become more frequent and more difficult to resolve.

The development of waste disposal sites has become a complex technical challenge, requiring advisory input from qualified experts. Technical specialists and related industry representatives, such as David Parkinson and Mark Matthews, are frequently asked to serve on policy-making bodies. It is instructive to explore the general underlying social inequities that often lead to land-use planning conflicts and the specific causes of distrust associated with this case.

Consent, fairness, compensation and equitable sharing of burdens are principles that result in acceptable land use solutions (Simmons 1987). One disturbing reality illustrated in this case study is that the poor, minorities, and rural residents are often asked to bear an unfair share of the burden for undesirable land uses.

The principle of fairness suggests that the burden of waste disposal should be shared equitably among all citizens responsible for producing the waste. Poor, rural citizens understandably perceive their share of this burden to be unfair, since a larger proportion of waste is generated by wealthy and urban consumers who can afford to live far from the typical solid waste disposal site. Recognition of this fundamental inequity suggests that consent for undesirable land use will be difficult or impossible to obtain when the affected parties do not respect the planning process and do not trust those making the decisions. Promises of compensation will be viewed with suspicion.

Proceeding without local consent raises moral questions. In some cases, a forced solution may not even be workable, since local citizens may be in a position to physically resist the development and effective use of the site.

While the Barker Township residents have not yet adopted a militant posture, they clearly feel abandoned by the political process. Their attempt to mount a recall campaign has little chance for success, given the small population of the Township. Should the County Commission proceed with development of the Barker Township site, the local residents will likely always believe the decision was political, taking advantage of the small Township population. This situation is unfortunate, as the Barker Township site may, in fact, be the best site among alternatives in the County. Arguments based on objective risk analysis of ecology, geology and rational comparisons of economic implications of alternative sites will not be convincing to the residents of Barker Township. They perceive a conflict of interest, and in such conflicts the controversy is not over the technical qualifications of the decision-makers to make the right decision, but rather the trustworthiness of the decision-makers to make the right decision. The quality of professional judgment is not at stake, but rather the potential for violation of trust (Luebke 1987).

For a moment, let us consider the viewpoints of Matthews and Parkinson. These two specialized professionals have donated their time, probably without compensation, in this position of public service. The need for technical expertise on the Solid Waste Management Planning Committee is recognized by state law, and these two individuals appear to be qualified for the positions. Assuming that Matthews and Parkinson are altruistically motivated and not acting in self-interest, they will no doubt be frustrated by this experience. Engineers are typically not prepared by their education and practice for involvement in the political arena. When their objective professional judgment is questioned and when their personal motives are challenged publicly, the experience can be devastating. Many technical professionals choose to avoid public service for this very reason.

Yet the services of technical experts are needed in the political arena, and the donation of valuable time is surely commendable. The engineer who participates in public service is a better engineer as a result of interaction with all segments of the population. It is desirable for specialized experts to observe the social impact of technical decisions. Such involvement should be encouraged and rewarded.

Potential conflicts of interest, however, may be unavoidable when technical consultants serve on public decision-making committees (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, Luebke 1987, Davis 1982). Such conflicts of interest may be direct, such as that recognized by Matthews, the potential developer of the site in question. Matthews has openly acknowledged his situation and has stated that he will not vote on this issue. This may be the best approach to take when a clear unavoidable conflict of interest arises.

Parkinson's situation is not so clear, however. An appearance of conflict of interest is suggested by his past involvement with Matthew's firm as a consulting engineer on other projects. Such perceived indirect conflicts are very common, and may result from prior consulting positions, professional society relationships and personal friendships with other technical experts. The dilemma posed by Parkinson's position is especially interesting. It is not clear what he should ultimately do, but his decision should carefully consider the conditions of mistrust that are building in the Barker Township. Again, this mistrust is not a challenge to his technical qualifications, but rather a challenge to the political process of making appointments.

This perceived conflict of interest situation was avoidable. Luebke notes that, while such conflicts are often unavoidable, there is a moral obligation to avoid conflict of interest situations when they are foreseeable (Luebke 1987). In retrospect, the County Commission is clearly to blame for placing Matthews and Parkinson in this uncomfortable situation. Since opposition to this site development was foreseeable, an effort should have been made to advertise the Planning Committee positions prior to making the appointments. If no other qualified applicants were found, the claims made by the Barker Township residents would not be quite so convincing. By acting as they did, the County Commissioners have ensured that the Barker Township residents have a distrust, not only of Matthews and Parkinson, but of the entire County Board and its process of making appointments.

Avoidance is clearly the best way to deal with foreseeable conflict of interest situations. Successful land-use planning is based in public confidence; public confidence, once lost, is very difficult to regain.

Suggested Readings

  1. Davis, Michael 1982. "Conflict of Interest," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 17-27.
  2. Luebke, Neil R. 1987. "Conflict of Interest as a Moral Category," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 66-81.
  3. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 178-182.
  4. Simmons, A. John 1987. "Consent and Fairness in Planning Land Use," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 5-24.

Elizabeth Dorsey is involved in a moral dilemma arising from a conflict in roles. Her role as a citizen of Parkville and an environmental conservationist is in conflict with her role as an employee of CDC, Inc. Role conflicts always present difficult ethical challenges because they test loyalties and commitments (Nelson and Peterson 1982).

This commentary will first consider Elizabeth's personal dilemma as presented in the case study, from Part I through Part XII. After consideration of Elizabeth's situation, a few additional questions arising from the field of environmental ethics will be presented.

I & II

Elizabeth becomes aware of the role conflict. Her employer is seeking expansion space, and none is to be found in the inner city where the firm is now located. Parkville's recreational and wildlife area is an attractive site for CDC, but it is Elizabeth's hometown and she has been instrumental in keeping commercial development out of the area.

Elizabeth's situation is made more difficult by the pressure exerted by CDC management. This pressure is not appropriate. David Jensen should not accede to Jim Bartlett's request, whether or not David is aware of Elizabeth's role on the Parkville Environmental Quality Committee. David should defend Elizabeth based on her value to CDC as an engineer, not as a potential political agent.

The type of pressure Jim Bartlett seeks to exert on Elizabeth would use her merely as a means to an end, rather than respecting her as an intrinsically valuable human being (Rachels 1986, pp. 114-117). What he is demanding of her has no relationship whatsoever to her professional obligations.

David should inform Elizabeth of Jim Bartlett's request, so she will be better able to assess her situation and make informed choices. This information should be presented in a non-threatening way, and David should also assure Elizabeth of his support.

In his discussion with Elizabeth, David may be able to gain some insights regarding the environmental quality of the Parkville site. Her opinions may be useful to the CDC Planning Committee, so they can be more informed as to the impact of the committee's proposal on the environment.


Elizabeth is presented with the opportunity to reveal her conflict. The sooner she discusses this with David, the better. Employers have an obligation to avoid placing employees in situations of apparent conflict of interest, but in order to do so, they must be informed. If David isn't already aware of her past work, Elizabeth should definitely discuss this with him and enlist his support. She may be headed for an unpleasant confrontation and she will need informed allies, whose support is founded in mutual understanding and trust.


The dilemma presented in Part V should never have arisen. Truthfulness earlier would have kept Elizabeth out of this situation. Avoiding truthfulness in conflict of interest situations merely delays the confrontation and makes it more severe.

David now is in a very awkward situation. He has been forced to admit to his superior that a subordinate has been less than candid with him. His ability, and his desire, to support Elizabeth in later confrontations may have been damaged along with his credibility. However, neither David nor Jim is justified in ordering Elizabeth to "cool it." Such action involves excessive demands for loyalty and is clearly an abuse of management authority (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp.174-177).


The option presented in Part VI is a good approach. It effectively takes Elizabeth out of the controversy. She won't help. She is not friendly with the Council, and she identifies the reason. She doesn't support CDC's proposal and makes it clear that she couldn't possibly be an effective advocate for CDC even if she did support the proposal.

This action shifts the burden for the ethical dilemma back to CDC management. Elizabeth has not threatened to use her position to either undermine CDC plans, or to profit within the firm from her unique relationship with Parkville.


Jim again demands that pressure be exerted on Elizabeth to "cool it." David should discuss with Jim the moral implications of this pressure. Also, David has the responsibility to inform Elizabeth again of her precarious situation. If David really values her as a person, he will offer to help sort out the alternatives and potential consequences with her. Combining their two perspectives may enhance understanding.


Elizabeth should not break confidentiality with her employer when the opportunity is presented. She has some responsibility to her employer in this regard. The information will soon become public. Elizabeth's neighbors may be upset with her, but she should be able to articulate her reasons for confidentiality. Reference could be made to the ABET Code of Ethics which states that "Engineers shall treat information coming to them in the course of their assignments as confidential." Some have noted that this statement is too broad (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp. 182-188). Certainly, employer confidentiality should be breached in cases involving public safety.

Other alternatives could be defended on moral principles, should Elizabeth be absolutely convinced that her silence will prevent proper public planning procedures from occurring. A careful assessment of potential outcomes should be undertaken before Elizabeth reveals her privileged information.


In Part IX, Elizabeth is forced to evaluate the strengths of her conflicting commitments. Proceeding further publicly may seriously jeopardize her career with CDC. Other role conflicts may also emerge at this point, such as her role as economic provider to her family. Her public position really shouldn't jeopardize her future with CDC, as it has nothing to do with job performance. However, in this circumstance, the threat is clear. Certainly, any informed party would find it acceptable for Elizabeth to step aside and let the CDC proposal be judged on its own merits.


Elizabeth decides to make a public statement. If she is going to speak out, it should be done in this way. She has a right to political positions as a citizen. This includes the right to provide input to land-use planning decisions. But she has correctly expressed these opinions in general terms, consistent with her past public positions on the subject. The media may establish the connection between Elizabeth and CDC, but she importantly has not directly and specifically criticized her employer in the public arena.

However, Elizabeth's public statement does carry some important connotations. It may actually serve to "muddy" the decision-making process so that Parkville residents are not able to look objectively at the CDC proposal. Hopefully, Elizabeth has carefully considered her unique position of influence prior to speaking out.

With regard to the continuing threats from Jim Bartlett, David should reply forthrightly. He should tell Jim that he did convey Jim's warnings to Elizabeth, but that he tempered the information with his own judgment and offered Elizabeth his support to exercise her conscience.

There may be a component of sex discrimination in Jim Bartlett's attitude. Special care is required of managers in situations where males have traditionally held dominant management positions. In these situations, female employees find it more difficult to be assertive. David should ask Jim if he would make the same implied threats and charges of disloyalty towards a male employee in Elizabeth's position.


Parts XI and XII investigate the perspectives of the Committee for Environmental Quality and the typical Parkville citizen. Elizabeth should discuss her opinions with the Committee for Environmental Quality, but she shouldn't take a leadership role unless she is willing to jeopardize her job.

It is probably more important that Elizabeth ask to discuss her concerns with the CDC Planning Committee, especially if her concerns are founded in specific issues of unique environmental sensitivity. Elizabeth is not going to be an effective advocate on either side, for her motives will be questioned by both sides. Her conflicting roles inject unnecessary confusion. Parkville residents should be allowed to review the CDC proposal objectively. Consideration of all the facts in an open public forum should enable the community to judge the proposal on its own merits.

Additional Questions

The role conflicts encountered by Elizabeth in this case study are so interesting that one might overlook some equally interesting moral questions from the field of environmental ethics (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp 262-278). Space does not permit discussion of these questions, but a thorough review of the case should include the following:

  1. Why does Elizabeth commute 60 miles each day if she is truly concerned about environmental quality? What form of transportation does she use?
  2. Is the Parkville site unique? Is it particularly sensitive to development? Or is this a case of the "Not In My Backyard" objection to changing land use?
  3. Has Parkville become an exclusive community for affluent commuters, and if so, have the original residents been displaced by the high taxes associated with preservation of undeveloped land?
  4. What about the citizens who live in the big city, those who can't afford to live in Parkville? Do they have regular access to the environmentally protected area, or is it enjoyed only by the residents of Parkville?
  5. Denial of the CDC proposal may result in further congestion and pollution of the inner city. What are the ethical implications resulting from this alternative?
  6. Can communities like Parkville hold out forever? There are many examples of quality environmental projects involving cooperative business and government alliances. Maybe this is the best opportunity Parkville will ever have to preserve its quality of life, considering economic and environmental factors. Is it possible to sacrifice a little in order to preserve most of an environmental asset?
  7. Consider the implication of CDC's plans as they impact the inner city. Abandoning the current location will reduce the tax base that supports city services. How will this affect those who must live in the city?

These questions deal with broader environmental issues. They are not directly related to Elizabeth Dorsey's dilemma. If we had specific answers to the questions about Parkville, however, we might be able to better assess the fundamental moral principles guiding Elizabeth's reasoning.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY.
  2. Nelson, Carl and S. R. Peterson 1982. "Conflicts of Roles in Engineering Ethics," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 108, No. E11, January, pp. 7-11.
  3. Rachels, James 1986. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 114-117.
Commentary On

The fundamental moral concept of honesty is at stake in this case study. Norm Nash, representing the position of management, has made the decision to deny the possibility of a defective product. This decision has been made on the basis of public image and ignores the technical opinion given by Walt Winters, one of the firm's engineers.

Winter's silence is probably appropriate in the first meeting with the client. His position is one of technical support, not public relations. Also, his suspicions are not yet confirmed, and a preliminary contradiction of Nash's statement is unwarranted. Winters is correct in raising his objections directly with Nash following the meeting with the client.

Norm Nash's reaction is unfortunate. Walt Winters should be distressed by this reaction. His first move should be to disassemble the equipment to confirm his diagnosis, if possible. If the evidence supports his hypothesis, he should then press Nash vigorously to deal honestly with the client.

While this one experience with one executive may not be indicative of the attitudes of all management executives in the corporation, Winter should observe corporate management decisions carefully for other moral deficiencies. The expression that this is merely a "management problem" of little concern to technical staff can lead to serious consequences. If management decisions routinely overrule factual technical information, placing public relations over honesty, the stage has been set for potential moral disaster. There are many examples from all engineering disciplines. One well-documented case is the Morton-Thiokol treatment of the events leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle accident (Boisjoly 1987).

One puzzling question comes to mind: What is the cost of honesty here? The relationship between R&M and XYZ is firmly established, based on years of reliable service. An honest admission of equipment failure will not damage such a relationship. Confidence is built, not destroyed, by honesty and integrity. This client is left with unanswered questions: Is this an equipment deficiency? Is it an installation problem? Has the breakdown occurred due to operator error or improper maintenance? These unanswered questions may lead to suspicions. Unanswered questions are far more likely to undermine client confidence than an honest admission of potential manufacturing defects. And Nash has already agreed to replace the equipment at no cost to the customer. What possible economic cost could honesty demand beyond this?

It is precisely the lack of economic cost that makes this case so disturbing. The lessons for Winters, potentially a future manager, are clear: If honesty can be compromised in such a trivial instance, why should one insist on integrity when the costs are high? Honesty is not always this inexpensive. Sometimes it costs a great deal. When the stakes are high, surely it will be easier to dismiss moral commitments.

The image of infallibility cultivated by managers like Nash, and their unwillingness to admit fault leads to unrealistic expectations by clients. When failures do occur, society is unprepared for the consequences.

The concept of risk is not at all well understood by the public (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). Instead of providing assistance in understanding this concept, many engineers and managers like Nash have encouraged unrealistic expectations by their attitudes. The public has become more intolerant of failure and more suspicious of the technical experts who are unable to deliver the promised risk-free society.

In fact, the very foundation of engineering design is based in trial-and-error experience. The state-of-the-art cannot be advanced without failure (Petroski 1985). The implication of a condition where failure does not occur is that technology is not advancing. When products do not fail once in awhile, one must conclude that they are inefficient and over-designed.

Technical professionals and product manufacturers have a clear ethical responsibility to communicate honestly about failures, thus contributing to the safety and reliability of products and the advancement of engineering design practice (Carper 1989, 1986, Gnaedinger 1987). Admittedly, this communication has been greatly hindered by the expanding litigiousness of contemporary American society.

Finally, some additional questions ought to be considered. It has been noted that the cost of honesty is very small in this case. What if the anticipated cost were higher? What if XYZ were a new prestigious client, with no established business relationship? An honest admission of fallibility might destroy the relationship in its infancy, with implications for many employees of R&M. What if the equipment failure had resulted in great economic losses to XYZ, as products and other equipment may have been damaged by the failure? What if serious injuries, or even deaths, were caused by failure of this equipment? Should the actions of Nash and Winters be any different?

Do these more serious consequences and potential costs create an intrinsically different moral situation, or is the situation merely made more complex by the legal implications? Does the fear of litigation dictate the appropriate moral response?

Unfortunately, the example provided by Norm Nash gives Walt Winters very little to encourage principled moral reasoning.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Boisjoly, R. M. 1987. "Ethical Decisions: Morton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster," presented at the Winter Annual Meeting, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Boston, MA, December 13-18.
  2. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering, Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 1-31, 347-348.
  3. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1986. Forensic Engineering: Learning from Failures, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY.
  4. Gnaedinger, John P. 1987. "Case Histories: Learning from Our Mistakes," Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol.1, No. 1, pp. 35-47.
  5. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 106-142.
  6. Petroski, Henry 1985. To Engineer is Human, St. Martin's Press, New York, NY.

Substance abuse, or rather the abuse of persons by harmful substances, is a serious problem in the workplace. In construction and in other engineering industries, alcohol and drugs contribute to lost workdays, increased medical costs, inefficient productivity, poor quality work, and safety problems. These effects of substance abuse impact not only the drug user, but also other employees, the employer, clients and, in some cases, the general public.

Mandatory testing for drugs has been implemented in some industries, such as the transportation industry, where impaired judgment can result in significant injuries and deaths to innocent parties. Expansion of mandatory testing into other areas of the workplace has been the subject of many journal articles and several full-length books (Coombs 1991, NASPE 1984, Tulacz 1989). This topic raises important ethical questions. The protection of society and the rights of employers are in conflict with the civil rights of individuals, their freedom and their privacy.

Troubling moral questions have particularly been directed at those mandatory testing programs that are not accompanied by successful rehabilitation efforts. Such programs are not usually founded in concern for the individual. They are more likely based in concern for diminishing productivity. Those programs that simply use testing results to dismiss abusers from employment have feeble moral ground for existence, for they view individuals only as means to an end, rather than as objects having intrinsic value.

Immanuel Kant and many other philosophers have placed emphasis on the intrinsic value of human beings. Moral theory encourages the treatment of people as ends in themselves, never only as means to an end (Rachels 1986). It is precisely this point, the intrinsic value of human individuals, that suggests the proper course of action for John Crane.

John Crane's dilemma is this: Should he talk with Andy Pullman about Andy's drinking problem, or should he overlook it? John is not the kind of person who is comfortable with the prospect of discussing this problem with Andy. In this respect, most people are like John. There are not very many people in this world who find it easy to initiate such a conversation. However, John and Andy have worked together for several years. During that time, John has developed a respect for Andy's work, and it appears that they have a close working relationship. Andy is extremely fortunate to have a friend like John. John may be the best person to talk with Andy, and he should do so.

Friends can have an impact when they show genuine concern. A common public service announcement says, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." Friends don't stand quietly by and let friends abuse themselves and their future with harmful substances, without expressing their concerns. Certainly, there are important aspects of privacy and freedom to consider, but an honest attempt should be made to communicate.

Often, substance abuse is a symptom of low self-esteem. This may not be the case in Andy's situation, but if it is, it will be encouraging to Andy to find out that John values him enough to discuss the problem with him.

John's concerns are genuine and sincere. His motives are founded in his respect for Andy and his desires for Andy's prosperous future. He is not motivated by self-interest, and Andy will likely understand this. If more persons were willing to lay aside their discomfort, and express genuine concerns for each other, mandatory drug testing might not be an issue. The concerns expressed by friends for each other are founded in the treatment of individuals as objects of intrinsic value.

Harvey Hillman, the Plant Manager, asks John later to comment on the appropriateness of placing Andy in the top quality control position. It seems that John should not raise his concerns in this forum, unless he has been willing to discuss the problem first with Andy. If he hasn't already done so, he should approach Andy immediately following his visit with Harvey.

Of course, John should discuss the problem with Harvey if his visit with Andy is not productive. Andy's promotion may place him in a position such that others are adversely impacted by his impaired judgment. There is a point, beyond which, a concern for the intrinsic value of those other individuals must take precedence.

Very few who have managed people in industry have not had to deal with an alcohol problem and, with the present growth of the drug culture, the chance of needing to deal with drug usage in the workplace grows even greater.

In no way can use of alcohol or drugs in the workplace be condoned or sanctioned. A user cannot be a 100% performer (although many will assure you they are) if he (or she) is using alcohol or drugs in the workplace. A user--as a less than 100% performer--cheats the company in his performance. He (or she) cheats himself/herself, too, by giving a performance that may cost the individual chances for pay raises and promotion.

In a workplace where machinery use is involved, the user runs the risk of injury to himself, and possibly to others, because his reaction time has slowed down. In quality control, or other functions where decisions must be made quickly, and where the decision affects the operations of other departments, it is absolutely critical that the decision-maker not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In the case described here, John, as a friend must speak to Andy about his drinking problem (and it is a problem if he is drinking at the beginning of work and on breaks--in truth, Andy is undoubtedly an alcoholic) and urge him to seek help. Paralleling the slogan of today, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk," John should bring home to Andy that "Friends don't let friends risk their job by working drunk."

Andy must be a good worker if he can use alcohol and still perform at a level that merits him consideration for a promotion. Think how much better he could be if he could free himself from alcohol-dependence!

After John and Andy have talked, if Andy takes no action to curb his problem, John should let company management know of Andy's problem. This action is a form of "whistleblowing." End of a friendship?--perhaps, but this action may keep Andy from a job whose pressure will deepen his need to drink. Not getting the job, if followed by appropriate advice from management, may shock Andy into admitting his problem and doing something about it. Andy will never give up his drinking until he admits he has a drinking problem and seeks a cure.

As to compulsory drug testing--companies are now beginning to make drug testing a part of the pre-employment physical exam. This is done with the full knowledge of the prospective employee who can refuse the exam if he (or she) chooses. However, refusal removes any opportunity for obtaining the job.

Unions will have to be convinced, through appropriate negotiations, that mandatory drug testing and the elimination of drug users from the workplace is necessary for the overall health of the company and subsequent improvement of the lot of the worker in such a company. One suggestion to help to get the union to agree to drug testing is to offer rehabilitation at company expense to drug users revealed by the testing program.

I see no reason to exempt the professional workforce at Branch from drug testing--this case study has already shown us problems in existence in the professional work force! Some may see drug testing as an invasion of privacy, but it is truthfully a means of saving a professional worker from destroying himself (herself). As suggested above, the company could enhance drug testing by offering paid leave for rehabilitation of addicted individuals.

The troubles at Branch seem to be so deeply rooted that one must fault top management of the company. Absenteeism, shoddy workmanship, profit decline, drug and alcohol problems are symptoms of management out of touch with what is actually going on in the company. If I were on the Board of Directors of this company, I'd push for major changes in company management and an overhaul of supervisory practices.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Coombs, Robert H. and L. J. West 1991. Drug Testing: Issues and Options, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
  2. National Association of State Personnel Executives and Council of State Governments 1984. Drug Testing: Protection for Society, or Violation of Civil Rights?, Lexington, KY.
  3. Rachels, James 1986. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 114-117.
  4. Tulacz, Gary J. 1989. What You Need to Know About Workplace Drug Testing, Prentice-Hall, Old Tappen, NJ.

Alison Turner is experiencing a moral crisis partly because of an unhealthy group leadership situation. In order for group problem solving to be successful, a style of discussion leadership must be developed to maximize the group's assets and minimize its liabilities (Ritchie and Thompson 1980).

The Plant Nuclear Safety Review Committee includes more than one individual because a group has access to more knowledge and experience than an individual has. Also, a group can generate more alternatives to solving a problem, and can explore a problem from a greater number of perspectives than an individual can. Such assets are particularly valuable when the group is charged with safety oversight responsibilities for critical facilities. These aspects of group problem solving can only be realized, however, when the group leader understands and facilitates effective group dynamics. Each individual must be encouraged to voice concerns, including contingencies that have not been considered by other group members. Each individual must feel valued by the group. This is the goal of leadership ethics (Maier 1980).

Rich Robinson, chair of the committee, is not exercising effective leadership. He is dominating the discussion, and with the help of two other strong personalities, Brad Louks and Joe Carpello, he is quickly leading the group toward a preconceived decision. Alison Turner, along with others, is hesitant to accept this decision, but no one speaks. Alison is especially uncomfortable because she is the least senior member present at the meeting.

Group decisions, especially unanimous group decisions, are generally given more weight than decisions made by individuals. However, this case illustrates that group decisions may, in fact, represent the viewpoint of a single member of the group or the judgment of a minority of dominant individuals.

Unless all individuals in the group are comfortable in contributing to a consensus, the value of the group is questionable. The decisions may as well be made by an individual, or by a computer using expert systems technology. People, not computers, have been trusted with the oversight assignment in this case, and the reason is that experience-based judgments are needed.

The experience brought to a problem by senior members of a group is valuable. However, sometimes seniority works to disadvantage. The less-senior members may feel uncomfortable challenging their superiors. But the less-senior members are often able to bring fresh insights and new experiences to the problem. Senior members may be inclined toward misguided loyalties and may become complacent and defensive. These attributes can be seen in some of the comments by Brad Louks and Joe Carpello: "...we've always been leaders in safety," and, "Our track record is excellent..." When contingencies are being ignored, these attitudes need to be challenged. The less-senior members of the group can be very effective in energizing a complacent group if the leadership is healthy.

This committee has a precedence of always arriving at a unanimous decision. The account given here causes one to question the wisdom of honoring such a tradition. If a unanimous decision represents a consensus agreed to willingly by all members of the group, then the unanimity may be an indication of the quality of the decision. However, in this case, it appears that a unanimous decision may be the result of social pressure. Social pressure within a group can stifle disagreement. Uncomfortable parties remain silent and conform to the wishes of dominant individuals (Maier 1980).

Alison and at least one other member, Mark Reynolds, are not comfortable with the direction the group is taking. Public welfare may be at stake, and one hopes that these individuals will decide to place the public interest above their own personal comfort. This is the hallmark of professionalism. Sometimes things do go wrong in spite of low probability, and concern for this contingency is what separates the true professional from the "uninvolved" technician. The engineering Code of Ethics requires members of the profession to "...hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public" (Pletta 1987, Rubin and Banick 1987).

Since Alison still has reservations, she should not vote to approve the Justification for Continued Operation. The committee will be forced to either address her concerns, or to depart from the precedence of unanimity. It should be noted that there is some merit to abandoning the practice of forced unanimity. Dissenting viewpoints based on rational arguments are useful, especially when something goes wrong. The dissenting comments assist in the re-evaluation of decision processes. Even the Supreme Court does not insist on unanimous decisions; a lack of complete consensus is a valid reflection of the uncertainties present in judgment decisions.

The safety of the Nuclear Power industry relies on the diligence of many professionals who worry about contingencies. Redundancy of critical components and systems is a key factor in ensuring public safety. The "Single Failure Criteria" that Alison is exploring is fundamental to the concept of Redundancy. She is not "...getting (unnecessarily) carried away with possibilities," as Joe Carpello suggests. She is exercising her professional responsibilities as a trusted member of an oversight group. She is merely concerned that all reasonably foreseeable contingencies be investigated.

When things go wrong, there is always a technical explanation for the failure. But there is also inevitably a procedural problem, involving human deficiencies (Carper 1989). Often the procedural problem relates to a flawed decision process and complacency regarding contingency plans. Mark Reynold's suggestion that the concerns expressed by Alison be referred back to the Mechanical Engineering group makes a lot of sense. This act would not entail a great time delay. It will impress the Mechanical Engineering group with the need to investigate all contingencies when future problems arise. And, even if the problem turns out to be less critical than it now appears to Alison, the committee decision will truly be a willing consensus. The more comprehensive review will be viewed favorably by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the NRC will likely place more credibility in future recommendations from the committee.

One final concern deserves comment. The current report implies that the cooling system is operating at or below the limit of acceptable standards. The problem appears to be sand blockage involving all four heat exchangers. If nothing is done to remedy the situation, is it not likely to deteriorate further? Yet, the dominant individuals in this group are committed to getting on with business as usual. Robinson says, "If we don't approve this, we may be facing a multi-million dollar proposition."

Obviously, the time will come when a sizable expenditure will be required, unless further compromises to public safety are entertained. If Alison retains her commitment to professionalism, and we hope she does, it will be even more difficult to speak up next time. In the future, she may find it necessary to take her concerns outside the company. At present, however, the best option is to insist on voicing her convictions within the organization (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). There may be others, like Mark Reynolds, who will follow her example and improve the quality of interaction in this committee.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering, Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 14-31.
  2. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 213-224.
  3. Maier, Norman R. F. 1980. "Assets and Liabilities in Group Problem Solving: The Need for an Integrative Function," in Organization and People, by J. B. Ritchie and P. Thompson, West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, pp. 170-180.
  4. Pletta, Dan H. 1987. " 'Uninvolved' Professionals and Technical Disasters," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 113, No. 1, January, pp. 23-31.
  5. Ritchie, J. B. and P. Thompson 1980. Organization and People (2nd edition), West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, pp. 155-244.
  6. Rubin, Robert A. and Lisa A. Banick 1987. "The Hyatt Regency Decision: One View," Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 1, No. 3, August, pp. 161-167.
Commentary On

Sometimes the ethical conflicts faced by employees result from flawed management practices. Before discussing Tom Bank's dilemma, it will be useful to explore Axtell's management policies, since they have contributed to the dilemma. Axtell, Inc. maintains installation policies that exceed legal requirements for manufacturers of chemical containers. It also appears that these policies exceed the normal standard of care exercised by Axtell's competitors. The extraordinary attention given by Axtell management to safety is commendable, and these policies are partly responsible for the successful reputation enjoyed by the company. Many product manufacturers fail to provide the quality of on-site service provided by Axtell. The problem of improperly installed equipment has become a major risk to safety in the workplace. As products become more technically sophisticated, proper installation has become more critical. This is especially true for toxic material containers and other equipment related to hazardous chemicals and processes, where there is the potential for costly damage or serious injuries.

Howard Hanson is proud of the safety record of his installation division. He insists on sending an engineer to each project to supervise the installation, even when customers would rather proceed without such supervision. This creates a demanding workload for his installation engineers, and they are often working under pressure. Howard refuses to compromise quality under these circumstances, and his installation engineers bear the brunt of the resulting frustrations expressed by impatient clients. Howard Hanson's personal commitment to safety is responsible for the policy in question in this case. He requires all new engineers to be supervised by a veteran engineer for their first full month on the job. This policy is not a legal requirement, nor is it a longstanding policy of the company. The policy is consistent with the company's desire for enhanced quality and safety, and it is on this basis that Howard was able to convince Axtell management to adopt the policy. One cannot fault Howard for his commitment to safety. However, it appears that his policies are creating unrealistic expectations for his subordinates.

While engineering managers do have ethical responsibilities to their clients and to the general public, they also have responsibilities toward their employees (Firmage 1989). The safety record of Axtell is built on the backs of overstressed, overworked installation engineers. The underlying source of the moral conflict here is that the Axtell installation division is understaffed. The workload pressures are immense, and there is no personnel backup to support the commendable policies developed by Howard Hanson. When the case was made for this new policy, he should have insisted on increased personnel to support the new policy with adequate personnel.

Tom Banks is working on the last day of the last week of his first month as an installation engineer. Charles Yost, the veteran engineer he has been working with all month is ill. He knows that Howard's policy requires him to supervise Tom's work one more day, but he is really too sick to do the job adequately. He doesn't want to bother Howard, because "...Howard doesn't have anyone available to replace me...and this job can't wait." The client is already impatient to get the installation completed. Besides this, Charles has already used all of his sick leave and doesn't want to take another day off. Rather than talk to Howard, Charles suggests that Tom just continue with the installation and violate Axtell's policy. Charles will place his certification on the installation, even though he has not actually supervised the work. He feels comfortable in making this suggestion, based on the quality of Tom's work all month. When first confronted with this suggestion, it seems that Tom should have insisted that he and Charles talk to Howard. Perhaps Howard is unaware of the impact of his conscientious safety policies on his installation engineers.

This situation provides an opportunity to discuss the demanding workload. It may be the case that Charles' illness is the result of these demanding pressures. An open discussion with Howard at this time might have led to the hiring of additional personnel. Reduced pressure may have even delayed Charles' subsequent heart attack. In retrospect, considering the later problems, it is easy to see that the desirable course for Tom would have been to discuss the problem with Howard from the beginning. It is only proper that Howard should be required to resolve the ethical dilemmas created by his policies. Now, following Charles Yost's death, some serious leaks have been found in the containers installed on that critical last day of Tom's probationary period. These have caused costly damage and injuries. The client has threatened legal action against Axtell, Inc. Should the case go to litigation, Axtell's attorneys plan to refer to the company's past record and to its rigorous installation policies. This places Tom in a difficult dilemma, for those very company policies were violated on the day the equipment was installed.

If Tom has not yet done so, it is clear that he should discuss the events of that day not only with Howard, but also with Axtell's attorneys. It is important to note that a lapse in Axtell's normal installation policies may not, in itself, result in increased legal liability in this case. The courts have traditionally held professional services to the Standard of Care test, which recognizes that engineers are human and therefore prone to errors in judgment. Perfection is not required, but rather conformance to the Standard of Care exercised by the engineer's colleagues practicing in the same place and at the same time (Carper 1990). The fact that Axtell may not have followed its own policies exactly, when those policies are more stringent than the Standard of Care exercised by its competitors, should not be a serious legal issue.

The lesson of this case, at least from Tom's perspective, is that truthfulness comes easier when the first opportunity for truthfulness presents itself. Maintaining a lie or defending a lapse in moral judgment is always difficult. In this case, what first appeared to be a harmless evasion of truthfulness, may result in the temptation to commit perjury in the courtroom. It is important not to forget, however, that there is a lesson for Howard in this case. Management has a clear ethical responsibility to maintain quality working conditions for employees. One of the proper functions of management is to create a working environment in which ethical conflicts like this one are less likely to occur.

Suggested Readings:

1. Carper, Kenneth L. 1990. "Ethical Considerations for the Forensic Engineer Serving as an Expert Witness," Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 9, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, pp. 21-34.

2. Firmage, D. Allan 1989. "Management/Employee Ethics in Engineering Offices," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 115, No. 1, January, pp. 53-58.