Doing One’s Job: Engineering Ethics

At the beginning of June I was invited to help lead a tour to China by the World Bank’s ‘Environmental Community of Practice’ (COP) which would be visiting the Hubei Yiba Highway Project. This was a major 172 km long expressway which I prepared for the Bank in 2007/8. It traversed a very environmentally sensitive area and my team and I put great efforts in trying to minimize the negative environmental impacts.

I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit China and see the project as I considered it to be one of the highlights of my professional career. To be able to escort over 100 environmental and social specialists from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Australian Aid, Japan, Korea and China to the project was an added honour as it would give me the opportunity to share a number of the unique innovations on the project. I’ll do a separate write up later on the project and what I found…

It was wonderful to catch up with old colleagues, but I was particularly humbled by the generosity of the Hubei Provincial Communications Department who gave me (and later the team) a special award for our contributions. I felt it was very undeserved since all we had done was to give the Government the best advice and support we could to achieve their vision.



The award gave me pause to think about the meaning of doing one’s job. After all, if all one is doing is what one is asked to do, then why the award? This led to reflections on the ethical obligations we have as engineers towards our clients and society because all my team and I were doing was fulfilling our duty to help as best we could. So I’m going to be a bit reflective here and share some thoughts on the issue of ethics and the engineer. Not a best selling subject, but an important one to all engineers.

A Family of Engineers

I come from a family of engineers. My father and his brother were Civil Engineers. His sister married a Civil Engineer (from my father’s university class). My uncle had three children. All engineers. My aunt had three children. The son is an engineer. Both daughters married engineers. This continued to the next generation. For example, my cousin Hillary has two children: both engineers. I am helping sponsor my brother’s son to study Civil Engineering. So when I say that there was a certain trajectory in my career choice towards engineering from an early age, that would be an understatement. But I do think I’m the only one of us to take it to the extreme of getting a PhD (which stands for ‘permanent head damage’ as one has to be mad to do one!).

From when I was young my father instilled in me some key values that I still try and hold to today. I recall when I would have been about 14 and we visited a shopping centre he had helped lead the construction. He ran his hands along the railings to identify any imperfections so that they could be fixed. That was the summer he got me a job working on the ‘Prince Hotel’ project in Toronto. Amongst my notable jobs was to check every bathtub in the building for any imperfection which would require re-enamelling. This was a very large undertaking as the place was huge. What he was teaching me was that there is no detail too small for us to note as we have to do our utmost to give the client what they expect. My World Bank teams (and clients) who have been with me on implementation support missions know how anally retentive I can be in applying this approach to the projects I supervise Smile

My father was also a great example about making ethical decisions, even when they come at high personal cost. When he was in his early ‘50s the company closed operations in Toronto. Like most people of that age it was tough to find a new job, but he found one advising some developers on ‘leaky building syndrome’ in two high rise buildings in Toronto. They didn’t like his advice on the right way to fix the problem and insisted on a lower cost ‘solution’. He decided to resign rather than compromise his profession standards, even though that would potentially lead to hard times. That’s a powerful lesson on someone who had just entered university to study engineering.

Engineering Ethics

It is interesting to look into the history of engineering ethics. It really came to a head during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when most engineers worked for manufacturers or other large companies. The expectations of the companies were that the engineers would do as they were told, while others argued that engineering needed to be an independent profession in which the practitioners were more than just technical employees. This eventually led to the establishment of the Institution of Civil Engineers in England in 1818, the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1851, and others. These began to put in place ethical guides for their members and to elevate our practices.

I did my Bachelor’s Degree at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. There is a very special ceremony in Canada called the ‘Obligation of Canadian Engineers’ ( The idea dates back to 1922, when seven past-presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada attended a meeting in Montreal with other engineers. They wanted a ceremony which would direct newly qualified engineers toward a consciousness of their profession and its social significance. The ceremony was marked with an iron ring being provided to the participants, to be worn on the small finger of their writing hand. If you ever see someone with an iron ring on the small finger you can be sure they are a Canadian engineer.

They wrote to Rudyard Kipling with a request that he come up with an oath that would be used in the ceremony. Kipling had mentioned engineers in a favourable light in several of his books. He obliged and the following is the oath we take as Canadian engineers:

I, ____________, in the presence of these my betters and
my equals in my calling, bind myself upon my honour and
cold iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I
will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the
passing of, bad workmanship or faulty material in aught
that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer,
or in my dealings with my own soul before my Maker.

My time I will not refuse; my thought I will not grudge;
my care I will not deny towards the honour, use, stability
and perfection of any works to which I may be called to
set my hand.

My fair wages for that work I will openly take. My
reputation in my calling I will honourably guard; but, I will
in no way go about to compass or wrest judgment or
gratification from any one with whom I may deal.
And further, I will early and warily strive my uttermost
against professional jealousy or the belittling of my
working colleagues, in any field of their labour.

For my assured failures and derelictions, I ask pardon
beforehand, of my betters and my equals in my calling
here assembled; praying, that in the hour of my
temptations, weakness and weariness, the memory of this
my obligation and of the company before whom it was
entered into, may return to me to aid, comfort, and

I was on a beach in Tahiti when my class took the ceremony, so I only participated vicariously, but I have done my best to follow it through my professional career. Especially the two key messages for us to follow:

Ethical and behavioural standards
Professional responsibility

The ritual of the Calling of the Engineer is such an integral part of Canadian engineering that in 2000 on the 75th anniversary the government issued a commemorative stamp.


Engineering societies around the world have incorporated ethics into the standards of their members. Ontario has five key principles (

  1. fairness and loyalty to the practitioner’s associates, employers, clients, subordinates and employees;
  2. fidelity to public needs;
  3. devotion to high ideals of personal honour and professional integrity;
  4. knowledge of developments in the area of professional engineering relevant to any services that are undertaken; and
  5. competence in the performance of any professional engineering services that are undertaken

These are vital principles that we as engineers need to always be vigilant to follow. Unfortunately we too often don’t…

Implications of Ethical Failures


The last paragraph in the above memo states: “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem … then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with the launch pad facilities”.  Just over five months later this is what happened to the Space Shuttle Challenger, killing its seven crew:


The story of how engineers caved to the pressures of management and the client (here, NASA) is one which forms the foundation of many courses on engineering ethics (have a look at For his integrity, Roger Boisjoly was hounded from his job, but he was recreated as a speaker on ethics and was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. Here is a really good book on the background to the disaster

More recently, and closer to my new home in New Zealand, we have had the spectacle of the impotency of the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ) to ensure accountability for ethical failures.

During the Christchurch earthquake on February 22, 2011, the CTV building collapsed killing 115 people.


It was subsequently found that the building did not meet construction standards. The royal commission report criticised Dr Alan Reay for giving inexperienced engineer David Harding the task of coming up with its design in 1986. Dr Reay was also criticised for not reviewing design plans, and for playing a part in Christchurch City Council wrongfully signing off a building permit. The report said Dr Reay did not provide adequate supervision to Mr. Harding.

Mr Harding was ”working beyond his competence” because he had not designed a complex multistorey structure before, and was inexperienced in the use of a computer modelling program relied on for the design. As a result, many of the building’s features were non-compliant.

So how does Dr. Reay solve his dilemma with IPENZ? Easy. You just resign and then the potential sanctions from IPENZ no longer apply as you are not a member.

There unfortunately too many other examples of failures of ethical standards in engineering which have led to loss of property and lives.

Where to with ethics…

We live in a society where too often the standard that people judge their actions by is that as long as something is neither ‘criminal nor illegal’, it is acceptable. In large institutions there is often what I call a ‘CYA’ (cover your … backside …) attitude where people act on instructions after ensuring that they have advised against it, or written a note to file to protect themselves from repercussions. This is very unfortunate.

We—especially as engineers—need to take our calling more seriously and live up to those principles that Rudyard Kipling called Canadian engineers to follow in 1925, built around high ethical and behavioural standards, and professional responsibility. It is our duty to our profession and if we do so, we will avoid debacles like the Challenger Disaster and the CTV building in Christchurch.

Some years ago a friend told me the story how he was poorly treated in a business transaction which cost his then small firm a lot of money. He told me that he took it on the chin and moved on. In the end he said, it is more important to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and be comfortable that you have made the right ethical decisions, than anything else. He was a great example and one we should all try and emulate.


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