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Question of Delegating Responsibilities
Question of Delegating Responsibilities



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 ago

    It would appear that Dan Dorset has been somewhat imprudent
    in putting his money down for the skiing condo vacation on such
    a tight timetable with his work. By not leaving any slack in
    his schedule, he is inviting Murphy's law to go into operation.
    This fact puts him in a negative light when discussing his
    situation with Ed Addison and others at Rancott.

    First and foremost, Dan must "act in professional matters
    for each employer or client as a faithful agent or trustee"
    (NSPE Fundamental Canon #4). As a salaried employee of Rancott
    he owes allegiance to their policies and procedures. He is
    fully expected to loyally carry out Rancott's policy of sending
    one of it's engineers to supervise all installations. This does
    not mean accepting Boulding employee Jerry Taft's offer to
    supervise the installation in his place. Even if Jerry Taft
    were more qualified than Dan Dorset to supervise the
    installation, that would not abrogate Dorset's responsibility
    to sign off on correct installation as an employee of Rancott,
    therefore assuming Rancott liability.

    One other unlisted possibility that may be feasible in
    version I of the case, is for Dan to go to the "nearby ski
    resort" and start his skiing vacation as scheduled. Then, when
    the two late units arrive two or more days later, he could
    arrange for Jerry to call him and interrupt his vacation for
    the "full day to install them". This would mean some additional
    travel and cost to Dan, but he would still be meeting all of
    his professional obligations. In this case, depending upon
    company policy and how well he gets along with his supervisors,
    it might be reasonable for him to request reimbursement for the
    cost of the extra travel since the late delivery of the two
    units was ostensibly Rancott's fault. Also, Rancott would
    certainly have had to approve Dan's vacation in advance, so his
    supervisors had to have known about Dan's vacation plans.
    However, it is difficult to make a case for any reason for Dan
    Dorset to call Rancott's home office to ask permission to let
    Jerry take care of the two units. Similarly, it is difficult to
    justify Dan's just leaving for his vacation while accepting
    Jerry's offer to supervise the installation.

    In either one of these latter scenarios, Dan and Jerry would
    obviously have had to sign off on the final installation
    documentation (version IV) in clear violation of several
    aspects of the NSPE code of ethics. First there is the
    Fundamental Canon about issuing public statements in a truthful
    manner (I-3). Then there is the Rule of Practice regarding not
    signing any plan or document not prepared under their direction
    and control (II-2-b). Next there is the Professional Obligation
    to not sign any specifications that are not in conformity with
    accepted engineering standards (III-2-b). The standard here is
    the announced Rancott policy of having their salaried employee
    supervise all installations. Finally there is the Professional
    Obligation to avoid misrepresentations which are misleading or
    intended to create an unjustified expectation(III-3-a). Here
    the unjustified expectation by Boulding would be that the
    installation had been overseen by a Rancott employee (not Jerry
    Taft, their employee), and that Rancott was accordingly
    assuming liability.

    Version II of the case raises some additional flags. First,
    it is not clear that Ed Addison's cocktail conversation with
    Dan was appropriate. It misses all of the points raised in the
    previous paragraphs about the professional ethics of the
    situation or the expected loyalty of Dan (and Ed) to Rancott.
    The question is not whether Dan should have left early if he
    had known Ed's position when he was at Boulding. The question
    is really whether Ed's position was acceptable and what should
    Dan have told him-- in a nice way over a second beer.
    Incidentally, Ed's final response to Dan's question in version
    II about the risk involved raises still other questions. How
    could the risk be estimated of installing the units without
    Dan's supervision? How safe would be safe enough? There is some
    excellent literature on risk analysis and risk management which
    may be relevant reading for Rancott management in reviewing
    their policy. Some of this literature differentiates between
    voluntary risks (like skiing) and involuntary risks (like using
    equipment not properly installed by others).

    The new idea introduced in version III of the case is that
    Rancott is not required by law or contract to supervise
    installations. This fact really does not change previous
    arguments presented above. The Rancott policy of requiring
    installation supervision by a Rancott employee supersedes
    whatever contractual arrangements have been negotiated between
    Rancott and Boulding. Further, legality does not equal
    morality. There have been many laws in the past that were
    clearly immoral (supporting slavery or genocide for example)
    and there has been an absence of many needed laws which would
    have pointed to moral behavior. The resulting laws following
    Watergate are a case in point.

    Version V introduces a new consideration, namely that
    instead of a skiing vacation, a following important assignment
    of a second installation is a scheduling conflict. Regardless
    of Dan's conversation with Ed (in version III) it is incumbent
    on Dan to either get Rancott to send a substitute for him to
    Boulding or to rearrange his follow-on schedule. For all of the
    reasons given above, Dan should not allow himself or the
    company to be put in a vulnerable position just to maintain a
    schedule. Whether in this version or the following one (VI)
    where he went skiing and nothing ever goes wrong, it is still
    incumbent upon Dan and his company to do the right and
    professionally acceptable thing.

  • Posted 14 years ago


    It is certainly tempting for Dan to convince himself that
    his staying on the job and missing out on his vacation would be
    unduly cautious and pointless. After all, at this point Dan has
    worked with Jerry on the installation procedures, and Jerry
    should be able to manage the last 2 installations if he is at
    all competent. Dan should certainly let his employer know
    before he leaves the project early to begin his vacation, since
    his colleagues in the Rancott home office can reasonably expect
    him to stay on the job unless they are informed otherwise. The
    more difficult issue is whether he should leave early even if
    he is given approval to do so by his home office.

    One argument in favor of Dan's leaving before the last 2
    installations are completed is that the risks of things going
    wrong as a result of his doing so are quite low. They are
    already low because the installation directions are clearly
    stated and no accidents should occur if they are
    conscientiously adhered to. They are especially low because he
    would be leaving the last two installations in the hands of a
    presumably competent engineer who at this point has significant
    experience in the installation procedures. However, there is
    still the fact that accidents have occurred in the past.
    Moreover, even though Jerry has been through the installation
    procedure eight times, he is much less experienced than Dan and
    may not be aware of the kinds of things that can go wrong or
    cause problems. This is especially true if the installation is
    complicated and susceptible to unforeseeable problems.

    Although Dan's desire to begin his vacation on schedule may
    be very important to him, it is difficult to see how this is
    relevant to the ethical questions arising in relation to his
    decision. If Rancott's policy of having its engineers supervise
    all installations is sound, then it is hard to see why Dan's
    vacation plans should be weighed against the application of
    that policy in this particular instance. Perhaps it will be
    argued that Jerry's experience in assisting in the installation
    of the first eight units is enough to allow Dan to suspend the
    policy under these particular circumstances, but as noted above
    Jerry's experience in the installation procedure is still
    meager in comparison with Dan's.

    Dan's overriding concern as an engineer should be for the
    safety of those who will use the equipment. His vacation plans
    are secondary. Unless he is firmly convinced that Rancott's
    policy regarding installation of the equipment are needlessly
    cautious and restrictive, he should remain on the job until it
    is completed.


    Ed's main concern seems to be his "neck" and what would
    happen to it if anything went wrong. He is willing for Dan to
    leave before the equipment installation is completed as long as
    Dan gets all the blame if negative consequences ensue. Either
    Ed does not believe in Rancott's policy, which he is presumably
    supposed to enforce, or he is willing to see it violated as
    long as he suffers none of the ill effects. If he disagrees
    with the policy, then he should attempt to have it repealed. If
    he agrees with the policy, then he should do his job, which is
    to enforce the policy. In either event, his self-serving
    attitude about Dan's actions is deplorable.

    Dan's obligations are not affected by Ed's position on this
    matter. Whether he could have "passed the buck" to Ed if things
    had gone wrong has little if any ethical significance. Again,
    Dan should stay on the job until it is completed.


    As in the previous scenario, whether Ed gives official or
    unofficial approval to Dan to begin his vacation before the job
    is finished and whether Dan will be held responsible by others
    if things go wrong is not ethically significant. As a member of
    the engineering profession, Dan should assume responsibility
    for his actions and make decisions on the basis of his ethical
    obligations to the general public, his employer, and his
    clients. Even if he is firmly convinced that Jerry is capable
    of finishing the installations without Dan's presence, there is
    still the small chance that errors will occur if he is not
    there to catch them. Furthermore, there is some extra insurance
    in having two engineers cooperating and checking each other's
    work. Even if both engineers are competent, there is always the
    chance that momentary inattention will result in accidents if
    there is no backup support. Perhaps duplication of effort is
    inefficient, but if the stakes are high it may provide an added
    margin of safety that should not be declined.


    Dan's signing the papers certainly does raise ethical
    questions. For example, what is the purpose of having papers
    signed verifying supervision of the installations? Is it a mere
    formality that no one pays any attention to? Or is it intended
    to be an integral part of the implementation of Rancott's
    policy regarding supervision of equipment installation? The
    greater likelihood is that signing the papers is intended to be
    a check preventing violation of the policy which relies upon
    the honesty and integrity of those assigned to carry out the
    supervision. For Dan to sign the papers without actually
    completing the supervision defeats the purpose of the policy,
    which, if the policy is sound, cannot be justified. Moreover,
    even if the policy is excessively restrictive and should be
    abandoned, signing a statement that one knows to be false is
    dishonest and therefore unethical unless there are overriding
    reasons for doing so. No such reasons are evident in this case.
    Similar arguments apply to Jerry's signing the papers.


    In this scenario, Rancott must choose between carrying out
    its policy regarding supervision of equipment installation or
    fulfilling its contractual commitment to the second customer.
    It seems unlikely that Dan would be the one who would decide
    which is the more important, and it would certainly be
    appropriate for him to consult with Ed and others at Rancott on
    this matter.

    Clearly there would be a stronger argument for Dan's leaving
    the completion of the equipment installation at Boulding to
    Jerry in order to go on to the next job than if his motives
    were to begin his vacation on schedule, since it can certainly
    be argued that contractual commitments generate ethical
    obligations. Unfortunately, Ed again seems to be preoccupied
    with his "neck" and what happens to it and not with ethical
    considerations. Consequently, his input is of little help to
    Dan. Perhaps Dan can consult with others at Rancott who will be
    more forthcoming in their suggestions. Otherwise, Dan must
    decide which obligation is more stringent--reducing the risks
    to the users of the Rancott equipment at Boulding or fulfilling
    the terms of the contract to the second client. The conflicting
    ethical considerations are preventing harm vs. promise-keeping.
    It is difficult to judge which is the more significant without
    additional details. However, in general, it would seem that the
    former is normally the more important consideration.

  • Posted 14 years ago


    Poor Dan Dorset! After weeks of looking forward to his ski
    trip, both it and his deposit are about to go down the
    drain--and unnecessarily at that, because Jerry Taft is
    qualified to supervise installation of the tardy equipment.
    It's too bad Dan is going to lose his vacation, but he has no
    choice, as his responsibility is to supervise installation of
    the units. What can he do about it? It's not that he's without
    recourse. What he can do is to try to get his company, Rancott,
    to reimburse him for his lost condo payment, and perhaps give
    him a free vacation to compensate for the one he lost. If he's
    a valuable employee, this seems like a good investment on
    Rancott's part. However if Dan doesn't think this option will
    work out, there's no harm done in phoning home and seeing if
    Rancott will let him leave early; perhaps there's another
    engineer available who can fill in. Although Rancott has good
    reasons for their policy of having one of their own engineers
    supervise installations, it doesn't necessarily have to be Dan,
    and in any case it is Rancott's company policy, not required by
    law or contract. So they can make exceptions if they choose
    (and Taft is said to be fully capable). But if Rancott turns
    him down, he's got to sacrifice his vacation. You can't just
    walk away from a job responsibility, even if you think nothing
    will go wrong.


    Later, Dan asks his chief, Ed, what Ed would have done if
    Dan had taken the vacation. Ed replies that he probably would
    have done nothing, at least not if nothing had gone wrong, but
    nevertheless 'officially' he wouldn't have approved of Dan's
    leaving, because to do so would be to risk his own neck. Is
    this a defensible position for a chief to take? No: Ed's
    position is mealy-mouthed and unconscionable. If he doesn't
    think Dan is needed, he should give him permission to leave.
    Since he won't authorize him to leave, and is afraid of "his
    neck," this is an implicit admission that Dan is needed;
    something might go wrong in Dan's absence. Ed is trying to be a
    nice guy and 'reasonable' by not telling Dan straight away that
    he isn't allowed to leave; he's afraid to authorize Dan to
    leave and doesn't have the courage to order him to stay and do
    the job. He wants to avoid making any definite decision so as
    to appear blameless no matter what happens. Ed needs to learn
    to accept the responsibilities of his position.

    On the other hand, Dan's way of going about this is not
    above reproach either. He has no right to push Ed into making
    hypothetical commitments Ed is reluctant to make. His approach
    to his lost vacation should be to request compensation from
    Rancott; he ought to simply assume that he would have be
    subject to disciplinary action if he absents himself from the
    work site without authorization. In fact, this assumption is
    part of his claim to compensation. Clearly, were it the case
    that he would not have been disciplined, then his claim for
    compensation is weaker, since in fact he would not have lost
    anything had he taken the vacation.


    In this scenario, Dan asks Ed for permission to leave, and
    doesn't get it. Ed's avoidance of responsibility is at least
    consistent: he won't authorize Dan's departure, but he won't
    threaten punishment if Dan departs without authorization. On
    the other hand, Ed isn't obligated to tell Dan what he would or
    would not do if Dan takes unauthorized leave. Given that
    nothing goes wrong, Ed might regard it as within his discretion
    to overlook the infraction; there is no rule saying that every
    infraction must be punished, nor is there any rule that he must
    decide in advance and notify Dan whether he'll be disciplined
    or not. Actual outcomes ought to be taken into account in
    determining punishments (as they are in the law: the drunken
    driver who kills someone is punished more severely than the
    drunken driver who manages to get home safely). Dan knows the
    rules and can assume violations will be punished. When Ed says
    he's given Dan his assignment and the rest is up to him, this
    is strictly speaking correct, (and in fact a tautology), but
    Ed's problem is that he's saying this as a way of evading his
    own responsibility to tell Dan in unmistakable terms that he's
    supposed to be on the assignment. Ed is not giving orders, he's
    covering his own neck.

    Ed's position is that Dan takes the risk by leaving without
    authorization; if something should go wrong, Ed will have no
    choice but to come down on Dan. This is a fair position to
    take, but not a fair proposition to put before Dan, who is
    thereby not given any clear directives.

    Given Ed's mealy-mouthed direction, and given that Dan
    really thinks his own presence at the site is unnecessary,
    would it be all right for Dan to leave? No, since he's not
    authorized to do so; the fact that Jerry can do the job and
    Rancott isn't legally obligated to have anyone present means
    that Dan could very well have been allowed to leave; but he
    wasn't. From his conversation with Ed, he's discovered that he
    works for a boss who doesn't like to accept responsibility.
    This makes it more difficult for Dan to make decisions, but
    doesn't change the picture about this one. Even assuming that
    he's correct in thinking that he isn't needed because nothing
    will go wrong if he's not there (an assumption which may not be
    justified), the fact remains that he's been told to be there
    and so has no choice.


    Therefore Dan's decision to leave is wrong, and now he shows
    that he's also dishonest and untrustworthy by being willing to
    falsify documents and expecting Jerry to do so as well on his
    behalf. Jerry would be a fool to sign, since obviously he's got
    a lot to lose if something should go wrong. Since Dan knows
    that Jerry will have to lie on his behalf, his willingness to
    take the vacation involves more than (arguably, minor)
    dereliction of duty on his own part, but subornation of
    dishonesty as well. Now Jerry is forced to choose between
    falsifying the documents, or in effect revealing that Dan took
    unauthorized absence. Maybe Dan didn't foresee the dilemma this
    creates for Jerry, or maybe he didn't think it would be a
    dilemma because he thinks Jerry is just as dishonest as he is;
    but the inevitability of putting his colleague on the spot in
    this way is another argument against taking the leave.


    In this scenario, Ed wants to leave early, not to take his
    vacation, but to begin another assignment. It's not stated how
    Dan got into this conflict. If he works under assignment from
    Rancott company, the fact that he'll be late for the next job
    is their problem which they can handle as they wish; since they
    can't have their engineers in two places at once they'll have
    to decide which is more important. Presumably Dan would point
    out to Ed that he's needed elsewhere, and let Ed decide where
    to send him. Whether Rancott sends someone else to look after
    the other job, or seeks a delay from the client, or decides to
    let Jerry finish the installation at Boulding, is not a problem
    for Dan.

    On the other hand perhaps the next assignment is one Dan is
    doing on his own. In that case, given the constraints of the
    question, Dan has a real problem that's not easily resolved,
    since he's apparently got inconsistent ethical obligations, to
    do work for two different employers at the same time. In the
    first place, one wants to know how he got himself into this
    situation. Presumably he relied on completing the Boulding job
    on time, which turns out to have been unrealistic, so his
    contract with the new client should have made allowance for
    this. Second, one should look for a solution: maybe he can
    overcome the late start and meet the deadline anyway, or
    persuade the second client to waive the on-time completion
    requirement, or persuade his boss Ed to let him leave the
    Boulding site. But third, if no solution presents itself, Dan
    will have to make some precise calculations. Since he can't
    fulfill both obligations, he ought to fulfill the one that's
    the most important. One consideration would be risk. Just how
    risky is it to let Jerry finish the first job? Is it correct
    that serious injuries may be possible from improperly installed
    equipment on the Boulding job? Against this possibility, how
    important is it to get the second job started on time? The
    risks of late installation at the second site are not given: do
    they involve safety, or just time and money for everybody? If
    there are equal risks involved, or if the risks to safety at
    the Boulding job are really insignificant, then if the second
    job is very important for Dan in terms of compensation and
    career advancement, he might be justified in opting for his
    self-interest and letting Jerry finish at Boulding. But if he
    does so, he'll take the risk that many other people won't agree
    with this decision, and he'll be blamed if something goes on
    the first job.


    The question of whether evaluations should be based on
    actual outcomes or on foreseeable outcomes is important in law
    and ethics, but the answers are not the same. In law, crime is
    generally measured by the harm actually done rather than
    foreseen or attempted; if you shoot at me and kill me you've
    committed murder, but if you miss you've committed only
    attempted murder. In ethics however the situation is different,
    since ethics, which evaluates character as well as behavior,
    depends much more heavily on intention than does law, which
    regulates in the first instance behavior, not thinking. If you
    do shoot at me, I might be thankful that you missed, but I'll
    evaluate you by your murderous intention and not by your
    inaccurate aim. Therefore ethical evaluation should be based on
    what is intended or foreseeable rather than on what actually
    happens. Putting aside all other considerations such as his
    responsibility to his company, whether Dan's decision to leave
    would be justifiable or not should depend on the risk he is
    running rather than on what actually happens. equal unwarranted
    risk deserves equal condemnation, regardless of actual outcomes
    in the two cases. Since a bad outcome is said to be unlikely,
    Dan's decision to leave, though wrong, is less to be condemned
    than were the odds of an accident greater, whether or not the
    bad outcome actually happens. However punishment is another
    question, since to punish is a law-like activity rather than a
    strictly ethical activity. Since punishment imposes harm on the
    person punished, in part in order to compensate for the harm
    he/she has done to some victim, there is always an argument
    that punishment should be reduced where no actual harm has
    occurred. Hence, two risks being equal, the one with no bad
    outcome should be punished less than the one where the bad
    outcome occurs; and it is at least open to question that
    someone ought to be punished at all for taking a small, though
    unwarranted, risk which does not in fact eventuate. It could be
    said then that whether or not a person is subject to
    punishment, should be determined by the risk he runs; but
    whether the punishment be administered, and how much, by
    outcomes. In actual fact, this seems to be Ed's position in II
    and III. Since ethically however we judge Ed by his intention,
    which is to save his own neck, and not by the actually outcome
    of his reflection, which is to arrive at a philosophically
    valid position, he gets little moral credit for it.

  • Posted 14 years ago

    Dan Dorset has been provided with an excellent opportunity
    to demonstrate the extent of his personal commitment to
    professionalism. He can act in his own self-interest, or at
    some personal cost, he can choose to act in the interest of
    public safety. The easier, less-costly alternative violates
    company policy and may increase the risk of accidents. The
    right thing to do is clear.

    Unfortunately, an attractive compromise has been presented.
    Jerry Taft's offer would relieve Dan of any personal cost and
    would compromise professional principles only slightly.

    Dan's employer has funded his travel to supervise
    installation of equipment. The location of the project is near
    a ski resort. Dan's vacation plans at the resort were
    predicated on the assumption that there would be no delays in
    the project. He didn't provide for a single day of
    contingencies when making these plans.

    Construction engineering projects always involve scheduling
    uncertainties. Dan surely recognizes that planning with no
    contingencies was his responsibility. His concern for public
    safety, along with acknowledgment of deficient planning on his
    part, should encourage him to eliminate any options that imply
    increased risk to the client or the public, even if these risks
    are of very low probability.

    Of the options listed at the end of Part I, only the first
    is directly driven by the moral principles of professionalism:
    Decline Jerry Taft's offer and stay until the job is complete.
    The second option also has some merit. A call to the home
    office may suggest some additional alternatives. For example,
    Dan's supervisor, Ed Addison may offer some additional vacation
    days or other compensation, or he may be able to suggest ways
    to circumvent the immediate installation of safety-critical
    components of the equipment so that other construction
    scheduling is not unnecessarily delayed.

    This option, not listed at the end of Part I, deserves some
    consideration. Perhaps the installation of the final two units
    could simply be delayed altogether until after Dan's vacation.
    Not enough information is given to assess the possibility of
    this option. It may be that the project schedule would be
    severely impacted by such a delay, but creative people might be
    able to find an acceptable compromise. Ed Addison should feel
    some obligation to assist Dan in meeting both his professional
    and personal commitments, insofar as possible.

    In Part II, Ed Addison exhibits some very disturbing
    attitudes for an engineer in a management position. Ed is
    clearly motivated by the desire to avoid personal
    responsibility for management decisions. He would rather not
    know when company policies or professional responsibilities are
    being circumvented. This attitude is not likely to inspire
    confidence with his subordinates, or to encourage them to
    accept responsibility.

    Complacency and a cavalier attitude regarding professional
    responsibility is contagious within organizations, particularly
    when management sets this tone. Rubin and Banick, in their
    outstanding review of the Kansas City Hyatt pedestrian walkway
    collapse, refer to the complacent attitude of the design
    engineer. In this case, 114 people were killed and another 200
    seriously injured, partly due to this complacency. Rubin and
    Banick ask:

    How can their conduct be explained? An understanding of
    their conduct is perhaps the most important lesson that can be
    drawn from the Hyatt collapse because it represents, more than
    anything else, a human failure to which all professionals are
    subject. Some succumb, some do not; most are just plain lucky
    in that they do not get caught. Our errors are picked up by
    others, or although our errors go undetected, no tragedy
    ensues. Complacency is a human failure. It creeps into a
    professional's approach to practice as the newness, excitement,
    and other early rewards of the profession fade. The
    professional becomes indifferent and stops worrying and
    agonizing. He takes shortcuts and gets away with it, and then
    takes more shortcuts. It becomes a way of life. This is human.
    The shock of an occasional failure brings him to his senses and
    forces him to reevaluate his conduct. (Rubin & Banick

    Ed Addison's attitudes are particularly disturbing since
    Rancott's equipment has experienced some recent failures. The
    possibility of failure should be more than an abstract concept
    to Ed, and he has a responsibility to convey the seriousness of
    inspection to his young subordinate, Dan Dorsett.

    Apparently, it is all right for Ed's subordinates to take
    risks, but he won't. His cautious approach to risk-taking
    involves concern for his "own neck," rather than concern for
    public safety, should something "go wrong." This self-interest
    based concern is also evident in his comments about skiing,
    although there is no ethical conflict here. The risks one takes
    while skiing are directly related to one's own well-being. The
    risks taken by professionals involving the welfare of others
    fall into an entirely different moral category.

    Complacency is a dangerous attitude for an engineer. But
    engineers in the corporate setting, particularly in management
    positions, can become insulated from the public they serve.
    Professional responsibility may become an abstract concept,
    unrelated to day-to-day decisions.

    The dialogue presented in Part II certainly does not suggest
    a reevaluation of the moral rightness of Dan's decision. Ed is
    not a worthy role model for professional responsibility. The
    safety of society depends to a great extent on a professional
    engineering community that takes its responsibilities much more
    seriously than Ed Addison does. The profession has a long
    tradition of engineers who have spent sleepless nights
    contemplating the risks associated with their judgments
    (Petroski 1985). Were this not so, there would be far more
    failures of engineered facilities and products.

    Ed Addison says, "...the bottom line is satisfied customers
    and keeping Rancott, Inc. out of trouble..." This statement is
    absolutely untrue. The primary guiding principle for engineers
    is to "use their knowledge and skill for the advancement of
    human welfare." (Evans 1988). The Code of Ethics further
    instructs engineers to "hold paramount the safety, health, and
    welfare of the public in the performance of their professional
    duties." Thus, the engineer's ethical responsibilities extend
    far beyond the employer and the client. Engineers are more than
    employees of a corporation. They are licensed professionals,
    trusted by society to maintain this focus on the public welfare
    (Rubin and Banick 1987).

    Perhaps it should be noted here that other professions may
    operate under entirely different ethical guidelines. For
    example, attorneys are bound by their Code of Ethics to always
    act in their client's interest (Carper 1990). This concept
    could have disastrous implications for public safety, should it
    be adopted by the engineering profession.

    Ed Addison would like to avoid failure. However, he
    interprets this task as his responsibility to "keep Rancott,
    Inc. out of trouble," rather than a responsibility to protect
    the public welfare. The danger in this attitude toward failure
    is that it confuses liability with professional responsibility.
    The engineer who is motivated merely by the desire to avoid
    liability may simply address the problem by writing contracts
    that transfer responsibilities to others, and by purchasing
    more insurance to insulate the firm from the economic impact of
    failure. This approach alone is not in the interest of public
    safety, but it is all too common in the current litigious
    society. Traditionally, engineers have accepted the
    responsibilities of their profession, and have been diligently
    motivated by concerns for the public who will suffer when
    things go wrong.

    In Part IV, the violation of company policy and compromised
    professional standards leads to a further deterioration of
    principles, as small compromises often do. The next step
    involves falsification of records. This is a definite
    complication, one that raises legal implications in addition to
    new ethical issues.

    Part V asks us to consider the dilemma from a new
    perspective. Dan's situation is now the result of a new job
    assignment. In this case, he should insist on official orders
    from Ed Addison authorizing him to leave the first assignment
    prior to completion. This transfers responsibility to Ed; it
    will be good for him.

    While asking for official orders, it might be in order for
    Dan to further discuss with Ed the ethical dimensions of his
    statements. He might include reference to the lessons Dan is
    learning from Ed's example. Perhaps Ed has become so insulated
    in his management position that he is no longer cognizant of
    his professional responsibilities that extend beyond
    enforcement of company policies. Perhaps he is unaware of his
    important influence on the professional development of his

    Part VI introduces the question of probability of outcome.
    The varying probabilities of various outcomes certainly ought
    to be a factor in making professional judgments among
    alternatives. It should always be recognized that these
    probabilities are estimates, and even if they prove to be
    accurate statistically, an outcome having a low predicted
    probability is still a possibility.

    For this reason, the actual outcome should not necessarily
    be given greater weight than other alternative outcomes when
    reviewing the rightness or wrongness of a prior decision. While
    the consequences may be undesirable, the decision may have been
    morally correct, given the information available at the time
    the decision was made. Similarly, a positive outcome should not
    be used to justify a decision that was morally flawed.

    Risk analysis is an important component of engineering
    (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). One contemporary engineer who
    specializes in risk analysis defines this activity as
    "assessing the probability of regret." Consideration of risk is
    something one should lose sleep over; it is not something to be
    taken lightly, as Dan is tempted to do, for personal

    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. 21-34.

    2. Evans, R. J. 1988. "Commentary on the Code of Ethics,"
      Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering,
      American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 114,
      No. 2, April, pp. 148-156.

    3. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
      (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New
      York, NY, pp. 118-124.

    4. Petroski, Henry 1985. To Engineer is Human,
      St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, pp. 214-215.

    5. Rubin, Robert A. and Lisa A. Banick 1987. "The Hyatt
      Regency Decision: One View," Journal of Performance of
      Constructed Facilities
      , American Society of Civil
      Engineers, New York, NY, Vol. 1, No. 3, August, pp.

Cite this page: "Question of Delegating Responsibilities" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Saturday, September 12, 2020 <>