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 is an open-ended scenario for discussion based on a case from the NSPE Board of Ethical Review that raises questions about the ethical permissibility of such employment.
After serving the County for many years as evaluator of the engineering aspects of County zoning petitions, Svensen, an engineer, retires and opens a consulting office to engage in similar kinds of work for private clients. Svensen is then retained by a development company petitioning the County board for a zoning variance. He is to testify about the technical feasibility of a major water system and its environmental impact on adjacent communities.
While still in public service, Svensen made preliminary technical evaluations regarding this petition. Citizens' groups opposing the granting of the variance have formally objected to the development company's use of Svensen as an expert witness in support of the petition.
Does Svensen have a conflict of interest? How important is it that Svensen made a preliminary evaluation of this petition while still working for the County? Is there additional information that would change your judgment of the situation?
--adapted from NSPE Case No. 78-10
NSPE Code of Ethics An earlier version may have been used in this case.
Return to Professional Ethics in Engineering Practice: Discussion Cases Based on NSPE BER Cases
This bibliography includes examples of different ways instructors have used case studies to introduce ethical topics to their students and resources for finding cases and incorporating them into the classroom.
In this essay, Dr. Whitbeck outlines an 'agent-centered' approach to learning ethics. The central aim is to prepare students to act wisely and responsibly when faced with moral problems. She provides a number of examples and cases with descriptions of questions and directions for promoting student participation and stimulating thought and discussion.