Professional Code of Ethics – the Glass Half Filled

Image result for football ticketsDo you belong to a professional organization? Does your organization have a code of ethics?  When is the last time that you or your organization reviewed the code of ethics to make sure that it is up-to-date and enforceable?  More importantly, how does your organization promote ethical awareness and compliance, both inside and outside the organization.

Many businesses and organizations have, as part of their core philosophy, a general set of rules of conduct and ethical behavior.  Most of these rules are rather common place (or should be) such as discrimination, bullying, and conduct unbecoming.  Around the office, it is not uncommon to hear conversations which may border on the offensive but are often, ignored or disregarded as not being harmful or damaging and so not worth calling out.  But can this silence be afforded when the language of the code emphasizes a total adherence to and zero-tolerance of any infraction?  In other words, if the language is concrete and all encompassing is there ever a case where in the smallest violation can be deemed acceptable?

Let’s look at this from a parental point of view.  In today’s public school system there is a rule of intolerance concerning the possession of a weapon on school property.  Now the obvious point behind this rule is that it is entirely inappropriate and extremely dangerous to bring, carry, or possess a weapon while on school property.  But what if it is Halloween, and the 6-year old student wants to dress up like his favorite Ninja Turtle, including carrying a plastic version of a Samurai Sword.  Should this person’s costume be banded because it includes a weapon, toy or otherwise?

Unfortunately for the child, the answer is YES.  First of all, just because the weapon is a toy or is part of a costume doesn’t mean that it won’t be used in an inappropriate manner. We all know the saying, “Boys will be boys,” which is to say that when a boy is holding a Samurai Sword in his hand he is going to want to pretend to swing it and stab at his enemies.  These enemies can be imaginary and invisible, or they could simply be a playmate who is also acting out his fantasy character, Captain America, and brandishing his shield.  Eventually, this playful behavior can and will lead to someone getting a whack or a poke in the eye and, God forbid, there may even be blood.  The point is, regardless of how innocent, or non-threatening the object is, it is still a weapon and it can hurt someone, therefore, it falls under the guideline of “banded from school property”.

How then does this apply to professionals and a professional code of ethics. Like the toy sword, there are often innocuous and seemingly innocent acts which may not bear any ill consequence but, no matter how small or innocent the infraction may seem, the fact of the matter is, you are breaking a rule.  And, while in the immediate there is likely no harm committed, the reality is that the code, the rule by which the profession maintains its integrity, has been broken and the only way to repair the rule is for their to be discipline and consequence.

Listen, if you will, to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) “Preamble” to their Code of Ethics.

“Engineering is an important and learned profession.  As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.  Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.

The preamble set forth by the NSPE sets a tone that says that following and behaving in accordance with the standard requires a maximum effort, not a minimum, and that the standards should be held to the highest level of expectation, not the lowest.  Most importantly, the preamble identifies what harm can come from a lack of ethics, “direct and vital impact on … all people.”  Like the school-yard rule, the preamble makes the same argument for strict compliance when it “dedicates” itself to the “protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.”  In other words, if you do not live up to the standard of conduct then you put the public at risk and so you are in breech of your professional obligation.

Within the world of “commercial construction” it is pretty common place for vendors, contractors, and other businesses to provide certain benefits which could be considered a gift.  For instance, while presenting new information about a product that they represent, a vendor may offer a “lunch and learn session” in which lunch is served to the engineering staff while the vendor presents their products.  When reading through examples of gifting conflicts, this is consider normal and acceptable interaction between a vendor and consultant because the food is part of the gathering of information by the professional.  But what about football tickets given to the consultant by a contractor, or tickets to concerts which may include the engineer’s spouse/companion.  In what way could these gifts be considered acceptable under the code of ethics.  Even a gift to or participation in a charitable event or activity can be used as influence, and, therefore, could be considered an ethical violation.

In these instances it is easy to see where the school yard rule comes into play.  Any gift, no matter how big or how small, has the potential of influencing the engineer’s otherwise objective opinion.  And while said engineer may claim that “nothing ever comes of these gifts” the fact of the matter is, it violates the basic precepts laid out in the preamble which call for fairness, impartiality, and most of all equity.  Equity in that the engineer is not likely to go out and find a competing product in which to specify against the vendor who provided the gift.  And to be certain, when it involves gifts that include the engineer’s spouse, well let;s just say that they might as well bring a real Samurai Sword to school.

The point is this, and perhaps this should have been said in the beginning, when it comes to professional ethics, your glass is either full or empty.  There can be no in between, no glass half filled.  What you as a professional do affects not only your client but it affects the society as a whole.  More importantly, it affects how your Profession is perceived. Before long, the emphasis on ethical behavior becomes subjective and professionals will pick and choose which to uphold and/or when to uphold it.  It will become acceptable, for instance, to accept an all expenses paid trip to a vacation resort, including your spouse or companion, for no other reason than “everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I.”

Which brings us to the closing point of this discussion, what if everyone else is doing it? Within the business practices and ethics manual of a national contractor is a statement. The statement says that they will not do business with those business partners who are known to be involved in corrupt and/or unethical business practices.  The statement does not stop there, however, but goes on to say that where a business partner is suspected of corruption, a diligent effort will be made to vet out the truth and, if necessary, take corrective action if necessary.

This policy of holding accountable not only yourself but your associates, as well, is commendable.  After all, it is peer pressure that often leads a person to stray from ethics. So why not use peer pressure to enforce the positive. Why not set an example and hold others accountable, particularly if your organization is large enough that they can afford the backlash and resentment which may come from their policy.

As a Professional Society, the language of the code, if it is truly going to be enforced and upheld, should make each member not only accountable to themselves but accountable to the others and to the society.  It should have, at its core, a sense of ethical peer pressure from within, that will be carried outwardly by those who support the Society and believe in its foundations. And perhaps the best way of promoting ethical behavior among peers is to make the penalty of ignoring or withholding knowledge of ethics violations carries the same weight and punishment as being the one who committed the violation.

“Physician heal thyself” could be translated into “Engineering Society protect your integrity”.