Professional Ethics in Engineering Practice: Discussion Cases Based on NSPE BER Cases
These cases present situations that raise ethical questions common in engineering practice and research. They are based on original cases brought to the BER (Board of Ethical Review) of the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) for review. The NSPE BER reviews cases with the specific purpose of making an ethical judgment on the actions of (only) the engineers in the cases, based solely on the NSPE Code of Ethics. The Online Ethics Center is presenting new versions of these cases that are more suitable for group and class discussion. These rewritten cases are deliberately open ended to encourage exchange regarding how one should respond to the situation rather than simply judgments about what someone already did. The discussion cases vary in the extent of their resemblance to the corresponding NSPE case. Each rewritten case has a link to the original NSPE version.
Public Safety and Public Welfare
- Code Enforcement
- An engineer is in the position of having to trade one safety concern for another.
- Use of CD-ROM for Highway Design
- A chemical engineer thinks about offering services in facilities design and construction, which he would perform with the help of a computer program.
- Software Design Testing
- An engineer, hired by a software company, believes that the company's new software design is safe under existing standards. However, the new software may not meet the new standards that he knows are about to be released--standards that Performing more tests could cost both the company and the public significantly. Issues of conflicting obligations to the company and the general public also arise.
- Suspected Hazardous Waste
- A supervisor instructs a student engineer to withhold information from a client about the suspected nature of waste on the client's property to protect what the supervisor takes to be the client's interest.
- Clean-Air Standards and a Government Engineer
- An engineer refuses to draw up a permit for a building she believes violates environmental standards. Several days later, she learns that her department issued a permit anyway.
- Responsibility for Public Safety and the Obligation of Client Confidentiality
- Tenants sue their building's owner, and the owner employs an engineer who finds structural defects not mentioned in the tenants' lawsuit. Issues of public safety versus client confidentiality.
- Code Violations with Safety Implications
- An engineer discovers deficiencies in a building's structural integrity, and it would breach client confidentiality to report them to a third party.
- Whistleblowing City Engineer
- An engineer privately informs other city officials of an environmental threat, a problem her supervisor has ordered her not to disclose.
- Safety Considerations and Request for Additional Engineering Personnel
- An engineer is concerned for worker safety during construction but yields to his client's objections to the cost of an on-site representative.
- Engineer's Dispute with Client over Design
- A client believes an engineer's designs are too costly, but the engineer fears that anything less may endanger the public.
- Do Engineers Have a Right to Protest Shoddy Work and Cost Overruns?
- An engineer who is employed by a government contractor objects to a subcontractor's poor performance and is ignored and silenced by management.
- Changes in Statement of Qualifications for a Public Project
- An engineering firm takes measures to remedy a deficit in a particular area of expertise needed to successfully complete for and carry out a public project.
- Contribution to Public Works Promotion Committee
- A promotion committee is organized to finance a variety of public works projects by issuing bonds to the public. They don't know, however, if they should allow engineering firms to contribute funds to the promotion fund.
- Knowledge of Damaging Information
- An engineer has a conflict between honoring an agreement with a former employer and reporting a hazard to protect the public interest.
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Conflicting Interests and Conflict of Interest
- Specifying Equipment of Company Owned by Engineer
- Lisa is asked to write specifications for a water expansion system. While she is competent to do so, Lisa also owns a company that manufactures and sells such systems. Does this constitute a conflict of interest? If so, how should it be handled?
- Serving Plaintiffs and Defendants
- An expert in her field, an engineer is approached by lawyers for manufacturer XYZ to testify on behalf of XYZ. Later, a plaintiff asks her to testify in an unrelated lawsuit against manufacturer XYZ. Does accepting the second job create a conflict of interest for her?
- Engineering Student Serving As Consultant to the University
- A graduate student holds consulting jobs for the university in which he is enrolled. Does this situation create a conflict of interest?
- Furnishing Limited Advice
- Is it ethical for an engineer to work for a local government agency and for a consulting firm that deals with this agency?
- Conflict of Interest in a Feasibility Study
- An engineer is in a position to decide the outcome of a feasibility study to her personal advantage.
- Accepting a Complimentary Seminar Registration
- A pipe company invites engineers to a complimentary educational seminar on the use of its products. This could be compared to perks and gifts given to physicians by drug companies.
- Engineer's Disclosure of Potential Conflict of Interest
- An engineer discloses a potential conflict between his interests and those of his client.
- Related Work Done for a Private Party Following Public Employment
- The situation of engineers leaving public employ and then working in the same area in the private sector is a delicate issue. The engineer has had access to government knowledge that a private client may desire. This case raises questions about the ethical permissibility of such employment.
- Services on Same Project
- A city engineer selects an engineering firm for a city project assignment based on its technical proposals. However, other firms view the selection of the firm as biased.
- Commission Payment Under a Marketing Agreement
- An engineer wants to provide international marketing services on a commission basis. The case raises questions about whether working for a commission where professional judgment is exercised creates a conflict of interest.
- Binary Service to Same Client
- Two Engineers co-own both an engineering firm and a consulting firm called Electricity Services. Their engineering firm is awarded an assignment by the board of directors of the water plant on the basis of reports and recommendations provided by their other company, Electricity Services.
- Contingency Payment for Industrial Design
- Payment for work on a contingency or commission basis is considered by some to undermine the professional standing of engineers, and, in some circumstances, to create a conflict of interest. Others view it as creating an incentive for an engineer to deliver the best services of which she is capable.
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Ethical Engineering/Fair Trade
- Expert Witness Services
- An engineer agrees to provide his services as a witness for free as a favor to his attorney friend. The client dismisses his friend as counsel and now the engineer wants to charge for his services.
- Serving as Design Engineer and General Contractor
- An engineer is thinking about placing a bid on a contract for a job for which, in his job at another firm, he prepared the plans.
- Refusing to Sign/Seal Construction Documents
- An engineer moves from one firm to a competitor firm and questions about what obligations the engineer has with respect to unfinished work left behind are raised.
- Use of Slogans in Political Campaigns and Advertising
- Questions arise concerning whether certain slogans are deceptive and misleading or cause dishonor to the engineering profession.
- Misrepresentation of a Business Relationship
- An engineer brings another engineer to a business meeting without first discussing business conditions with her.
- Competence to Certify Arms Storage Rooms
- An Engineer with no expertise in arms storage is asked by his superior in the army to certify such a room.
- Comments By One Engineer Concerning Another
- An engineer is not happy with the recommendation she receives from the Secretary of the Professional Engineer's society of another state. Questions arise as to who, if anyone, should be told of her dissatisfaction.
- An consultant's attempt to encourage competition conflicts with his duty to honor the patent of another engineer.
- Affirmative Action in Subcontracting
- A disadvantaged firm suddenly charges higher fees to the firm by which it is retained, soon after the parent firm receives much flattering publicity regarding the parent firm's use of the disadvantaged firm.
- Withdrawal of an Employment Offer
- A firm agrees to hire a recent graduate, then rescinds the offer several days after the student has informed other firms that he is no longer available for hire.
- Public Criticism of Safety
- A case in which an engineer agrees to take a job for the local newspaper, which misrepresents the engineer's professional opinion.
- Signing Off on Drawings
- An example of why signing off on one's drawings is essential to responsible engineering.
- Intellectual Property of Engineers in Private Practice
- An engineer submits a proposal to a county council, a member of which makes this proposal available to another engineer developing a proposal for a different county project. The second engineer uses the first engineer's information and data without the first engineer's consent.
- Raising an Issue of Participation in a Professional Society
- An engineer actively participates in professional and technical societies. This participation accords with the policy of the engineer's employer, but the engineer's immediate supervisor tries to block or prevent some of these activities.
- An Engineer's Agreement with Two Competing Firms for the Same Contract
- An engineer agrees to a joint venture for the same project with two competing firms. He does not inform either firm that he has discussed a joint venture with the other firm.
- Protesting a Low Fee Proposal
- Three competing firms submit price proposals with significant price differences. The lowest price proposal is challenged on the grounds that competent engineering services could not be provided within this budget.
- Advertising: Calendars and Pencils
- Two examples of advertising or gifts to potential and current clients are judged under the Code of Ethics.
- Changes in Statement of Qualifications for a Public Project
- This case describes possible methods of making amends for a firm's deficit in a particular area of expertise that a client needs to complete his project.
- Employment of Former Convicted Engineer
- A local company wants to hire a convicted engineer who is in prison for illegally receiving funds from the governmental program.
- Competition from Former Employees
- A group of engineers leave their employer to start their own firm. As the new firm contacts clients from its former employer, each firm casts doubt on the capability of the other firm to provide competent services.
- Maintaining Professional Standards: Writing a Letter of Recommendation
- The Board of Ethical Review (BER) discusses the nature of the obligation to write letters of recommendation and the value of professional-society membership in one engineer's respect for another.
- The Use of Work from an Unpaid Consultation
- This case covers the pursuit of a contract and use of a study authored by a competing firm. It raises questions about the limits that are required in order to keep competition for a contract fair.
- Promotional Letter Emphasizing Negative Attributes of Other Firms
- This case raises questions about what information is appropriate to include in a promotional letter.
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International Engineering Ethics
- Application of Code of Ethics to Non-U.S. Engineers
- An engineer and member of international NSPE wonders whether he should engage in a practice which is legally acceptable in his country but against the code of ethics of NSPE.
- Commission Payment under Marketing Agreement
- An engineer, experienced in providing services to the international community, wants to draw on that experience to provide international marketing services to U.S. engineering firms in return for a commission on the services those firms gain as a result of his marketing help.
- Gifts to Foreign Officials
- This case provides guidelines on what gift-giving practices are acceptable.
- Joint Authorship of a Paper
- This case addresses issues of fair authorship credit in research practice.
- Data Selection, Legitimate or Illegitimate?
- A graduate student intentionally omits some of his research data.
- Credit for Engineering Work in a Design Competition
- An engineer fails to credit another engineer for design work when he enters a competition for bridge design.
- Improper Credit Given for Research Data
- This case raises the question of how best to remedy an honest mistake in crediting the proper source of research information.
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NSPE Code of Ethics An earlier version may have been used in this case.
More extensive collections of the original NSPE Board of Ethical Review cases and judgments are available in two places:
- The University of Pittsburgh collection, which includes cases from 1958 through 1998
- The Texas Tech Murdough Center (National Institute for Engineering Ethics) collection, which includes cases from 1976 through 2001
Cite this page:
"Professional Ethics in Engineering Practice: Discussion Cases Based on NSPE BER Cases"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Wednesday, April 23, 2014