Background Skills for Teaching Professional Responsibilities of the Individual Engineer

When individual engineers face ethical situations that call into question their individual responsibilities, two main questions arise: what should I do and how should I approach supervisors or co-workers with my concerns? These two questions are related: determining what to do or implementing a decision once it is made often involves approaching supervisors and/or co-workers with concerns. This section focuses on teaching students skills for figuring out what to do and for approaching management or co-workers with ethical concerns. Since many students are likely to become supervisors/managers at some point in their career, it is suggested that professors give some attention to how supervisors can best respond to employee concerns, how they can work to prevent problems from arising in the first place, and how employees and supervisors can work together to create a comfortable atmosphere for employees to raise such concerns. Much information on this page was enhanced by information from the Free Management Library.

What to Stress

Facing and dealing with issues in the workplace, whether as an employee or as a supervisor involves two questions: what should I do (or what should be done) and how can I approach co-workers or supervisors with my concern?

What Should I Do or What Should be Done?

Determining what to do or what should be done depends on understanding the nature of the problem one faces. Issues that arise in the workplace are often subtle and/or complex with no one obvious right answer. To wade through the complexities of these issues and in an effort to come up with a comfortable and responsible decision, it helps to show students how to analyze situations that raise ethical concerns. The following suggestions are not meant to provide a scientific steadfast mechanism that can lead students to the "right answer." Nonetheless it offers students a strategy they can use to help understand and analyze situations. Issues can be analyzed by determining answers to a certain set of questions; these questions are relevant for employees as well as for managers/supervisors and depending on the situation could be discussed in a group setting (including all involved). Professors should help students identify and understand these questions.

These questions can be separated into three main topics: Understanding and Gathering Information, Assessing the Information, and "Living with" the Choice. For more information about this approach, see Carter McNamara, MBA, Ph.D. Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for Managers

I. Understanding and Gathering Relevant Information

(a) Do I have all relevant facts needed to make a choice in this situation? Can I obtain the facts I am missing? Making good choices involves having good and solid facts about the situation. Most times we lack at least some facts relevant to making a good decision; this contributes to the complexity. The facts one has (or lack thereof) should be taken into account when constructing a response.

(b) Who (aside from myself) are the relevant people involved in this situation? What are their interests in this situation and how might these interests be affected? There are many people who have stakes in the outcome of any given situation. Ethical decisions involve taking the interests of these "stakeholders" into account. While the interests of everyone involved are unlikely to all be satisfied, ethics requires that the interests of all relevant persons be taken into account or considered.

II. Assessing the Information

Once the two questions above are answered, the question is how should peoples' interests be considered; or in what way? The following questions deal with ways in which a moral agent (one faced with a moral situation) might assess her choices in terms of their impact on the interests of those involved. Many people believe that to get a full understanding of the issue, moral agents should ask themselves all of these questions.

(c) Consequences: One way to assess one's choices, or to choose among them, is in terms of consequences; usually construed as the choice that satisfies the most peoples' interests. Moral agents should determine what negative and positive impacts a given choice might have on those involved and consider ways the negative impacts might be accommodated. Thus, agents should ask themselves: Can I anticipate and account for the consequences of the various actions open to me? How might various responses to this situation affect those identified as having a stake in the situation? Can I accommodate for those who are negatively affected?

(d) Fairness: Another way to assess choices is in terms of fairness. Thus agents should ask themselves: What would it be like to take the place of those identified as relevant to this situation? That is, for each possible response, consider whether you would accept that response as legitimate if you played a different role in the situation.

III. "Living With" the Choice

Moral agents play a significant or special role in moral situations because they must "live with" their choice. The idea of "living with" one's choice usually involves two things: that the choice reflects the identity-defining values of the moral agent and that the choice would be regarded by others as responsible and/or acceptable. Thus, moral agents should ask themselves two questions:

(e) What are my values and how are they affected by this situation? Moral agents must weigh their own values against the values and interests of others (as depicted in the above questions). For example, the choice that best fulfills the criteria set forth in question (c) might not be one a particular engineer feels comfortable doing. Thus, an engineer might be asked to work on a project aimed at making deadly weapons more deadly. Working on this project might satisfy the interests of the supervisor, the investors of the company, and the client, but may nonetheless be counter to the values of the individual engineer.

(f) Will the choice I am thinking about doing be thought of by others (associates, family) as acceptable? How will I feel if these others found out about my choice? Living with a choice not only involves making a choice that coincides with personal values, but also recognizing that we don't live in a vacuum. We are profoundly social beings and our well being depends, in part, on living harmoniously with others. Thus, being comfortable with our choices depends on how those who comprise our community would feel about the choices.

How Can I Best Approach My Supervisor or Co-workers with My Concerns?

Often the process described above involves (or should involve) approaching supervisors or co-workers with concerns. One may need to approach others to find out more information. One may want to approach others to get advice or input. Approaching a supervisor may be part of the decision once it is made. Suppose that I have decided that I cannot, in good conscience, work on the project my supervisor has assigned to me; perhaps the project is counter to my personal values and I want to conscientiously object. In all of these cases, there remains the question of how best to approach my boss: what words should I use, when and where should I do it, etc.?

I. Think about the Unique Characteristics of the Person(s) with Whom You Must Communicate

Think about the unique characteristics of the person(s) with whom you must communicate. Determining the best way to approach co-workers or supervisors depends, in part, on the particular characteristics of the people involved. Different people, because of their different personalities and roles, require different approaches. When considering how to execute a response, it helps to take into account the unique characteristics of the person(s) one is approaching or affecting. If I know my supervisor shares my values, I might approach him/her by appealing to our commonality. If I know my supervisor does not share my values, I will have to take a different approach. If I know my supervisor is prone to unreasonable outbursts when confronted, I will have to prepare for that. One way to prepare is to create a decision tree. Think about a possible way of approaching the supervisor and try to anticipate how he/she might respond. Then, construct a response to that anticipated response, etc.

II. Work on Communication Skills

While it is important to acknowledge the unique characteristics of the person(s) with whom you are communicating, there is general advice about communication that students should think about. These include: maintain eye contact, nod your head to assure the other you are listening, don't interrupt, present the problem using "I" statements (to avoid the appearance of blame), acknowledge where you agree and disagree, focus on the present and not the past if possible, focus on the issue and not the person, ask "what can we do to fix this problem"? See Communication Skills (face to face)at the Free Management Library for more information.

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Suggested Assignments

  1. What should I do? Assign students in groups or pairs a scenario that depicts a workplace issue (several are listed below). Ask students, on the basis of the scenario, to prepare answers to each of the questions described above. Ask students to come up with a comfortable and reasonable response to the scenario. This response should be constructed on the basis of the answers to the questions they prepared and they should be able to explain this connection.
  2. How should I do it? After students determine what to do, they should think about the best way to implement that choice. You might provide descriptions of the key players or stakeholders in the scenario; descriptions that might allow them to anticipate how each would respond to various ways of implementing their choice. Students can then present this to the class by "acting out" how they envision such an implementation might go. To save time, have one group present a day and then ask the other groups to write a response to the presentation.
  3. The Bad Boss: "Bad" bosses pose a special problem in the workplace. Responding to and dealing with bosses who are unethical, brash, or otherwise bad supervisors requires special attention. We are in the process of preparing a short video that students/faculty can access here that will provide advice on this workplace issue.

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Web Resources and Bibliography by Topic

Bringing Ethical Concerns to Management: Complainants and Retaliation

Successful Mentoring

Cases: For Use in Teaching

Elysa Koppelman, Ph.D.

Cite this page: "Background Skills for Teaching Professional Responsibilities of the Individual Engineer" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/19/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Thursday, October 23, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Education/instructguides/18934/indback.aspx>