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New Supervisor Policies



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Year 1992
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Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago


    It would be easy for Tom to convince himself that "it will
    make no difference" if he agrees to perform the final
    supervisions alone without Charles' oversight. Both he and
    Charles are convinced that he understands the installation
    procedures very well at this point. There is only one more day
    of Charles' monitoring of Tom's work, and it is very unlikely
    that one day more would make any significant difference in
    Tom's ability to handle the job that he will have to handle
    alone starting the very next work day. However, for Charles to
    "put . . . [his] . . . tag on" with-out actually supervising
    Tom's work would constitute a deliberate deception. Of course,
    Tom might think that such a deception would be entirely
    Charles' responsibility--not Tom's--since, after all, Tom does
    actually supervise the installation and thus he would not be
    guilty of any misrepresentation.

    Moreover, Tom may not believe that it is his obligation to
    police Charles' actions in the situation. After all, Charles is
    Tom's supervisor and not conversely. However, it is arguable
    that this way of looking at the situation is distorted. For Tom
    to perform his supervision without Charles' oversight and
    knowingly to allow the impression to be given that his work was
    overseen as called for by Howard's inspection policy might be
    regarded as Tom's being a party to that deception. Perhaps
    Howard's policy is too careful and needlessly restrictive.
    Perhaps Tom and Charles should try to convince Howard that this
    is the case and that the rules should be relaxed in this
    particular situation. However, Howard would probably resent
    learning after the fact that his rules were violated without
    his prior knowledge.

    The only apparent reason for violating those rules without
    informing Howard is that doing so might cost Charles a day's
    pay. Tom may be very sympathetic to Charles' plight and very
    reluctant to risk confronting Charles with a refusal to handle
    things the way Charles wants to handle them. However, these
    seem insufficient to offset the opposing ethical
    considerations--viz. that for Tom to do as Charles wishes might
    be knowingly to participate in a deception and a serious breach
    of trust. Therefore, the most reasonable course of action for
    Tom is to insist, as sensitively and sympathetically as
    possible, that he and Charles contact Howard and involve him in
    their deliberations.


    There is a good chance that Howard would not really want to
    know that Charles did not oversee Tom's supervision of the
    installation of the containers on the last day of Tom's trial
    period. For Howard to know that his policy was violated might
    mean that Axtell's defense against Cameron's suit would be
    seriously weakened if this information were to come out.
    Therefore, Tom might reason that it would be better for both
    Axtell and himself for him not to disclose to Howard or to
    anyone else that his work was not overseen on the day in
    question. This would be particularly true if Tom doubted that
    Cameron's problems resulted from their own faulty maintenance
    of the containers and not from the installation. Then, Tom
    might reason, not only would the outcome be better for Axtell,
    but also justice would be done in the sense that Axtell would
    not unjustly have to pay damages for something that it did not
    cause and had no responsibility for.

    However, it is very questionable that the above
    considerations are the only considerations that are relevant.
    There is still the issue of truth-telling. If Tom withholds the
    information from Howard, when clearly that information is
    relevant to Howard's present inquiry and to Axtell's legal
    position in the suit that Cameron is planning to bring against
    Axtell, then he would clearly be engaged in suppression of
    information and deception. Whether Howard really would rather
    be deceived than to know the truth is perhaps unimportant. It
    is entirely possible that Axtell would be able to mount an
    effective defense against Cameron even if the facts came out,
    since it may be only a coincidence that the containers that
    leaked were among those the installation of which Tom
    supervised without Charles' oversight. However, even if this
    were not the case, it is doubtful that Tom would be ethically
    justified in concealing the information.

    Fair adjudication of disputes between individuals or between
    corporations requires that pertinent information be available
    for consideration by the adjudicators. If the situation were
    reversed and Tom's employer were suing some corporation for
    supplying defective products, would Tom be willing for
    pertinent information about those products to be suppressed? I
    strongly suspect that the answer is "No". If so, for Tom to
    conceal what he knows about the circumstances under which the
    containers were installed at Cameron would not be
    universalizable. Perhaps for Tom to tell Howard what he knows
    will not help Tom's career at Axtell. However, his doing so is
    more likely to be ethically justified than his concealing that

    Option 1:

    Assuming that Howard would not know that the regular routine
    was not followed unless Tom told him so, Howard would not know
    that his asking Tom to testify that it was followed would
    constitute asking Tom to commit perjury. Therefore, Howard's
    instructions to Tom would be based on false beliefs about
    important aspects of the situation and would not be binding on
    Tom. Again, the only reason apparent for Tom to conceal
    information and to misrepresent pertinent facts about the
    situation would be to protect his and his employer's interests.
    And it is highly questionable whether, in the long run, those
    interests would best be served in this way. For Tom to go ahead
    with perjured testimony would be more serious, certainly
    legally and probably ethically, than for him simply not to
    volunteer information about the departure from the regular
    routine. Consequently, Tom should not give perjured testimony,
    and if so he must now come clean and tell Howard about that

    Option 2:

    Perhaps Howard's request that Tom testify and that he not
    reveal that the regular routine was not followed gives some
    additional weight to the hypothesis that Axtell's interests
    would best be served by Tom's falsely testifying that the
    regular supervision and oversight routine was followed.
    However, given the stakes that are involved both to Axtell and
    to Tom, it is debatable whether this is so. Moreover, even if
    it is true, Tom's false testimony would be a blatant lie and
    deception. As noted above, proper adjudication of disputes
    requires that pertinent information be available for
    consideration by the adjudicators.

    Even if one regards lying or deception as justified in some
    situations by the good consequences that it produces, or
    perhaps the bad consequences that it avoids, this does not seem
    to be true of the situation in which Tom finds himself. It is
    very questionable that concealing information and
    misrepresenting the facts would have the best overall
    consequences in the long run. As noted above, Axtell may have
    an effective defense even if all the facts are revealed, since
    its installation and supervision procedures are perhaps more
    careful and deliberate than they need be. Presumably Tom would
    not want someone to suppress such pertinent information if the
    roles were reversed--i.e. if his employer were the party
    bringing the suit against some supplier of equipment. Tom
    should agree to testify but refuse to lie in court. There is no
    need for him to talk to Axtell's attorneys about Howard's
    request that he conceal important information during his
    testimony. He should simply tell Howard politely but
    straight-forwardly that if he testifies he will tell the truth
    and the whole truth.


    The situation here is very complicated, ethically speaking.
    One perspective is that the legal system should be allowed to
    function and that this means that, in an adversarial system,
    the attorneys, both Axtell's and Cameron's, should be in charge
    of the arguments that the parties bring before the court.

    In favor of this view is the rule-utilitarian argument that
    the "system" has been time-tested and has been found to work
    better than other systems. Accordingly, Tom should defer to the
    attorneys and rely on them for direction about whether and how
    he should participate in the legal process. An opposing
    argument is that, even if the adversarial system of justice
    works best in general, it sometimes breaks down in particular
    cases. For Tom to suppress information about the departure from
    the regular routine at the advice of the attorneys would be to
    deprive the process of important information and thus not serve
    the purpose of having all pertinent information available to
    those who must adjudicate the dispute. Of course, Axtell's
    attorneys may point out that, after all, the process is
    adversarial and that Cameron's attorneys can be expected also
    to control the information that comes out in testimony and
    perhaps to conceal any information that, if revealed, would
    compromise its position.

    Moreover, for Axtell not to use legal strategies would place
    it at a competitive disadvantage in this dispute. It is
    plausible that, given the legal system and how it works, in
    fairness and in loyalty to his employer, Axtell, Tom should be
    willing to listen to and perhaps defer to Axtell's attorneys in
    deciding how much information he will volunteer and how he will
    present the information that he has in his testimony if that
    becomes necessary. Perhaps he can safely assume that he will be
    called as a witness by Cameron if not by Axtell because of the
    important role that he played in the events leading up to
    Cameron's suit against Axtell. It might not be clear to Tom
    what the attorneys meant when they said that they would "coach"
    him in preparing him to give testimony. If it means that they
    will help him to present information in a manner that is
    accurate and not misleading so that he will not be victimized
    by the opposing attorneys, then there would seem to be no
    reason why he should not allow this coaching. However, if it
    means that they will help him to testify in a way that is
    deceptive and misleading although not strictly perjurious, then
    honesty and integrity require that he resist such "coaching".
    He should ask them exactly what they mean by "coaching" and
    then determine his course of action based on their response and
    the above considerations.


    If one bears in mind that Friday is the last day of Tom's
    trial period and that to this point he has demonstrated
    exceptional ability to do the job of supervising container
    installation, and that it is important to fulfill Axtell's
    commitment to complete the job by Friday, then it would seem
    entirely reasonable to have Tom complete the supervision
    without Charles' oversight. Of course, against the very low
    probability of anything going wrong on the remaining
    installations must be weighed the seriousness of the harm that
    might occur if something does go wrong--e.g. serious injury or
    death of Cameron personnel or damage to expensive equipment
    with the resulting legal liability of Axtell. Thus the risk (=
    probability of harm x seriousness of the harm) may be

    Furthermore, to depart from the established policy in this
    instance may make it easier to do so on future occasions. If
    that policy is a sound one, then it may be best not to violate
    it in this situation even if there is little reason to suppose
    that doing so will lead to dire consequences. Several
    alternatives are apparent:

    1. explain the situation to Cameron and find out if it would
      be acceptable to complete the installations on Monday,

    2. temporarily transfer an installation supervisor from a
      less urgent project to the Cameron installation to replace
      Charles for the Friday installations (assuming that such a
      person would be able to get there in time), or

    3. have Howard himself go to Cameron to replace Charles for
      one day (assuming that Howard has no more urgent business to
      take care of in the home office).

    Regarding (1), even if Cameron refuses to grant the one-day
    delay without insisting that Axtell pay a ($25,000) penalty, it
    may be in Axtell's long-term interest to go this route in order
    to preserve its reputation as a company that does good, careful
    work usually on schedule and that does not cut corners in ways
    that would jeopardize the health of affected parties. None of
    the above alternatives, including allowing Tom to complete the
    supervision of the installations alone, is clearly superior to
    any of the others. Uncertainties about the consequences of the
    different possible courses of action abound, and foresight is
    much less accurate than hindsight will be. Given the
    information available to Howard, any of the above alternatives
    would appear to be reasonable choices.


    As noted above, it would be an error for Tom not to notify
    Howard that Charles was unable to oversee his supervision of
    the final container installations, although perhaps an
    understandable one for someone in Tom's position--i.e. a
    relatively inexperienced installation supervisor who is being
    urged to act in a certain way by his assigned mentor in the
    company. Whether Tom recognizes his error and corrects it by
    telling Howard about the circumstances of the final equipment
    installations or compounds it by continuing to conceal
    important information from Howard will reveal much about Tom's
    honesty and integrity. Therefore, it matters greatly how Howard
    learns of the violation of the established routine.

    In any event, Howard should make it clear to Tom that he
    (Howard) cannot do his job if he is kept in the dark on
    important matters and therefore that he must insist that, in
    the future, Tom notify him of any departure from established
    policy and that any deception will not be tolerated. If Tom
    responds to being "called on the carpet" in a constructive way,
    then he may turn out to be a much more valuable employee than
    if the situation had not occurred at all. Michael Rabins This
    case is complex, with many possible variations, and it is
    realistic. It truly depicts the way a simple event such as
    Charles' illness on the last day of Tom's training period can
    escalate into all sorts of significant consequences.

    In other respects it was the most difficult to comprehend
    and comment upon. Some of the issues raised by the case are
    compelling and relevant to many other engineering cases.
    Whether Tom should cover for Charles' illness at the very start
    of the case, or call Howard and get advice on what to do raises
    the important issues of team playing, loyalty to the company,
    signing reports truthfully, not performing services in areas of
    one's (officially certified) competence, acting as faithful
    agents of the client or employer, and holding paramount the
    public's safety. In one way or another almost all of the items
    of NSPE Code of Ethics are called into question at the very
    onset of this case.

    In scenario #2, following the accident of Cameron, whether
    Tom tells Howard or not about his having departed from the
    regular routine is almost an order of magnitude in difficulty
    below the ethical issues involved in scenario #1. This is
    almost a transparently obvious set of circumstances involving
    the general desirability of honesty and integrity and the
    almost immediately obvious potentially disastrous consequences
    of Tom not telling Howard. Once the scene shifts to the court
    room in options #1 and #2 in scenario #2 still additional
    issues surface. No company or its lawyer can morally request
    someone to do anything that is illegal or that violates that
    person's morals. With that understood, some of the alternatives
    presented in option #1 and #2 become easier to deal with. The
    same issue applies to the questions raised in Version II of the

    Scenario #3 now puts the responsibility squarely on Howard's
    shoulders. The same moral guidelines and ethical codes that
    drove Tom to share his quandary with Howard apply equally well
    to Howard now that he must decide what to do. The above cited
    applicable items in the code of ethics, combined with standard
    Axtell professional practices, should guide Howard to what he
    must do; even at the cost of large penalty payments, additional
    installation costs and delays in job completion. What is at
    stake is public safety, Axtell reputation and future

    In scenario #4 the question raised about how Howard should
    deal with Tom depends upon when and how Howard learns of Tom's
    actions. This strikes me as more an issue of personnel
    management policy than an ethical case issue. In any event, if
    Tom has willingly withheld important information from Howard,
    this then comes under the heading of Tom's loyalty to the
    company and his ability to act as a faithful agent of

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    What makes this case seem hard is that everything is, or at
    least seems to be, extreme. Tom Banks is in the last day of his
    month's training. According to his trainer, Charles Yost, Banks
    is already good enough to be out on his own. Banks agrees. Yost
    is also quite ill, his sick leave already exhausted, and his
    finances so bad that he can't afford to take off a day without
    pay. He is unwilling to tell his superior, Howard Hanson, any
    of this. He tells Banks, "Howard doesn't have anyone available
    to replace me this week and this job can't wait." All this may
    be as it seems. Then again, it may not be.

    For example, Hanson might have someone to spare for a day of
    supervising or he might do it himself. He might even be willing
    to wait until Monday. After all, his motto is "Better late than
    sorry!" What Yost is proposing to Banks is that they cut Hanson
    out of the decision-making process, that they take over
    management of this job to do something (they should know) their
    employer would probably not approve. Whether or not Banks is
    ready to supervise installation of containers on his own is
    almost irrelevant. Though later events may suggest Banks needs
    more training, he has already received as much training as he
    is going to get. One day more or less should make no difference
    to his reliability.

    The question is simply who should decide to put aside
    Axtell's standard procedures for the convenience of one of
    Axtell's employees. Clearly, Hanson should. Even in the short
    run, this might also be the more prudent course. Hanson could
    do things neither Yost nor Banks could. For example, Hanson
    might have informed Cameron Chemical, the company for whom the
    work was to be done, obtained its approval for Banks to work
    alone, and told Banks to go ahead. Hanson might have thought
    such a departure from his usual (but not legally mandated)
    procedure permissible given both Banks' training and Cameron's
    approval. Well, that's not how Banks thought about it. He and
    Yost made the decision on their own. By all rights, that should
    have been the end of it. But it was not.

    Three installations performed on that day seem to have been
    defective. Chemicals leaking from three containers damaged
    valuable equipment. Cameron is threatening to sue. What should
    Banks tell Hanson when he tries to find out what happened? The
    truth: though the records report that he and Yost inspected the
    three installations on the last day of his training period, in
    fact he alone inspected the, Yost being too ill to do his part.
    Why not tell Hanson that? He needs the information to formulate
    his legal strategy. The information is hardly decisive. It
    reveals Hanson's legal position to be only slightly weaker than
    he supposed it to be. Axtell's procedure at Cameron on that
    day, though not quite Axtell's usual procedure, still went well
    beyond what the law requires or the industry generally
    practices. Cameron's storage facility, improper handling of the
    containers,or even sabotage still remain more likely than three
    improper installations Banks failed to catch.

    People not used to business often panic at the first mention
    of a law suit. Yet, law suits are simply part of doing business
    (and usually end up as disputes between insurance companies).
    Hanson should no more be shielded from the facts while he
    prepares for the suit than he should have been shielded from
    deciding whether Banks should go it alone. Once Hanson knows
    what happened, he will be in a better position to decide
    whether to fight or settle. But what if Hanson responds,
    "That's not what I want to hear"? Banks should look Hanson in
    the eye: "I'm sorry, Howard, I failed you when I was a trainee.
    I've learned my lesson. I've learned to keep you informed. You
    can fire me if you like, but I'm not going to lie for you.
    Think about it: If I lie for you in court, will you ever be
    able to trust me again? Can you run this business with liars?"
    Whatever Hanson answers, Banks should not lie about any of
    this. Lying is never part of an engineer's job. (NSPE Code

    If, however, Hanson simply asks Banks not to volunteer the
    information to anyone else, Banks should do as told. Indeed, he
    should keep quiet anyway. The information in question is
    clearly confidential. (NSPE Code III.4.) Though there are times
    when confidentiality must be violated, this is not one of them.
    Neither the public health, safety, or welfare is at stake.
    Banks does not know, or even have good reason to believe, he
    made any error at Cameron. Banks should not worry about working
    with Axtell's lawyer. Presumably the lawyer will coach Banks in
    how to avoid revealing confidential information during legal
    proceedings, not try to get him to lie about what happened at
    Cameron. Like engineers, lawyers have a code of ethics. Their
    code forbids them to cooperate in perjury.

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    Sometimes the ethical conflicts faced by employees result
    from flawed management practices. Before discussing Tom Bank's
    dilemma, it will be useful to explore Axtell's management
    policies, since they have contributed to the dilemma. Axtell,
    Inc. maintains installation policies that exceed legal
    requirements for manufacturers of chemical containers. It also
    appears that these policies exceed the normal standard of care
    exercised by Axtell's competitors. The extraordinary attention
    given by Axtell management to safety is commendable, and these
    policies are partly responsible for the successful reputation
    enjoyed by the company. Many product manufacturers fail to
    provide the quality of on-site service provided by Axtell. The
    problem of improperly installed equipment has become a major
    risk to safety in the workplace. As products become more
    technically sophisticated, proper installation has become more
    critical. This is especially true for toxic material containers
    and other equipment related to hazardous chemicals and
    processes, where there is the potential for costly damage or
    serious injuries.

    Howard Hanson is proud of the safety record of his
    installation division. He insists on sending an engineer to
    each project to supervise the installation, even when customers
    would rather proceed without such supervision. This creates a
    demanding workload for his installation engineers, and they are
    often working under pressure. Howard refuses to compromise
    quality under these circumstances, and his installation
    engineers bear the brunt of the resulting frustrations
    expressed by impatient clients. Howard Hanson's personal
    commitment to safety is responsible for the policy in question
    in this case. He requires all new engineers to be supervised by
    a veteran engineer for their first full month on the job. This
    policy is not a legal requirement, nor is it a longstanding
    policy of the company. The policy is consistent with the
    company's desire for enhanced quality and safety, and it is on
    this basis that Howard was able to convince Axtell management
    to adopt the policy. One cannot fault Howard for his commitment
    to safety. However, it appears that his policies are creating
    unrealistic expectations for his subordinates.

    While engineering managers do have ethical responsibilities
    to their clients and to the general public, they also have
    responsibilities toward their employees (Firmage 1989). The
    safety record of Axtell is built on the backs of overstressed,
    overworked installation engineers. The underlying source of the
    moral conflict here is that the Axtell installation division is
    understaffed. The workload pressures are immense, and there is
    no personnel backup to support the commendable policies
    developed by Howard Hanson. When the case was made for this new
    policy, he should have insisted on increased personnel to
    support the new policy with adequate personnel.

    Tom Banks is working on the last day of the last week of his
    first month as an installation engineer. Charles Yost, the
    veteran engineer he has been working with all month is ill. He
    knows that Howard's policy requires him to supervise Tom's work
    one more day, but he is really too sick to do the job
    adequately. He doesn't want to bother Howard, because
    "...Howard doesn't have anyone available to replace me...and
    this job can't wait." The client is already impatient to get
    the installation completed. Besides this, Charles has already
    used all of his sick leave and doesn't want to take another day
    off. Rather than talk to Howard, Charles suggests that Tom just
    continue with the installation and violate Axtell's policy.
    Charles will place his certification on the installation, even
    though he has not actually supervised the work. He feels
    comfortable in making this suggestion, based on the quality of
    Tom's work all month. When first confronted with this
    suggestion, it seems that Tom should have insisted that he and
    Charles talk to Howard. Perhaps Howard is unaware of the impact
    of his conscientious safety policies on his installation

    This situation provides an opportunity to discuss the
    demanding workload. It may be the case that Charles' illness is
    the result of these demanding pressures. An open discussion
    with Howard at this time might have led to the hiring of
    additional personnel. Reduced pressure may have even delayed
    Charles' subsequent heart attack. In retrospect, considering
    the later problems, it is easy to see that the desirable course
    for Tom would have been to discuss the problem with Howard from
    the beginning. It is only proper that Howard should be required
    to resolve the ethical dilemmas created by his policies. Now,
    following Charles Yost's death, some serious leaks have been
    found in the containers installed on that critical last day of
    Tom's probationary period. These have caused costly damage and
    injuries. The client has threatened legal action against
    Axtell, Inc. Should the case go to litigation, Axtell's
    attorneys plan to refer to the company's past record and to its
    rigorous installation policies. This places Tom in a difficult
    dilemma, for those very company policies were violated on the
    day the equipment was installed.

    If Tom has not yet done so, it is clear that he should
    discuss the events of that day not only with Howard, but also
    with Axtell's attorneys. It is important to note that a lapse
    in Axtell's normal installation policies may not, in itself,
    result in increased legal liability in this case. The courts
    have traditionally held professional services to the Standard
    of Care test, which recognizes that engineers are human and
    therefore prone to errors in judgment. Perfection is not
    required, but rather conformance to the Standard of Care
    exercised by the engineer's colleagues practicing in the same
    place and at the same time (Carper 1990). The fact that Axtell
    may not have followed its own policies exactly, when those
    policies are more stringent than the Standard of Care exercised
    by its competitors, should not be a serious legal issue.

    The lesson of this case, at least from Tom's perspective, is
    that truthfulness comes easier when the first opportunity for
    truthfulness presents itself. Maintaining a lie or defending a
    lapse in moral judgment is always difficult. In this case, what
    first appeared to be a harmless evasion of truthfulness, may
    result in the temptation to commit perjury in the courtroom. It
    is important not to forget, however, that there is a lesson for
    Howard in this case. Management has a clear ethical
    responsibility to maintain quality working conditions for
    employees. One of the proper functions of management is to
    create a working environment in which ethical conflicts like
    this one are less likely to occur.

    Suggested Readings:

    1. Carper, Kenneth L. 1990. "Ethical Considerations for the
    Forensic Engineer Serving as an Expert Witness," Business
    and Professional Ethics Journal
    , Rensselaer Polytechnic
    Institute, Troy, NY, Vol. 9, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, pp.

    2. Firmage, D. Allan 1989. "Management/Employee Ethics in
    Engineering Offices," Journal of Professional Issues in
    , American Society of Civil Engineers, New
    York, NY, Vol. 115, No. 1, January, pp. 53-58.

Cite this page: "New Supervisor Policies" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Sunday, September 13, 2020 <>