An essay suggesting methods of teaching students how to anticipate and respond to ethical issues in the workplace
The workplace offers a plethora of issues that individual engineers might face. In addition to issues specifically associated with the practice of engineering (concerns about quality, product, safety, productivity, there are general issues that can arise in any workplace (harassment, prejudice, privacy).
(a) Students should be aware of anti-discrimination laws as well as statements in codes of ethics of professional societies. They should also be aware of the laws and issues concerning privacy in the workplace.
Most codes of ethics do contain such statements. For example, IEEE guidelines to professional employment for engineers and scientists includes an anti-discrimination statement.
Discrimination: As Caroline Whitbeck explains, Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of a person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This law has been interpreted to include harm to persons from such action other than direct economic harm. It was held that psychological harm from a hostile work environment can affect job performance and keep employees from advancing in their careers
Sexual Harassment: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides a legal definition of sexual harassment: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."
Examples of sexual harassment include
Privacy: The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) is the only federal statute that offers workers protections in communications privacy. ECPA prohibits the intentional interception of electronic communications. However, the ECPA contains loopholes that facilitate employee monitoring. First, employers are permitted to monitor networks for business purposes. This enables employers to listen in on employee phone calls or to view employees' e-mail. Employers may not monitor purely personal calls, however, in order to determan that a call isi personal, employers usually have to listen to portions of the employee's conversation. Second, an employer may intercept communications where there is actual or implied employee consent. Consent has been found where the employer merely gives notice of the monitoring.
In addition, it has been found that employers have the right to test employees for information relevant to work-related issues. whether the particular test (drug test or psychological test) is appropriate or a violation of privacy has been determined by courts on a case by case basis.
(b) Discussion of sexual harassment, diversity, and privacy issues in the workplace can be very sensitive.
A good place to start is to first explain to students why it is important to study and understand these issues. In a project that describes interviews with business people on a scenario depicting discrimination in the workplace, Joel Palacios writes: "I am personally concerned about this issue because I am a Mexican-American with a distinct cultural identity. I want to understand the issues I will face in the future, and I want to be prepared to do what is necessary to overcome these barriers to professional success. I am also concerned about the problem from the point of view of human rights and equality. The essence of the problem is that discrimination, in any sense of the word, is unfair and may infringe on the right of individuals to pursue their own goals and their own way of life."
As Palacios points out, there are two reasons why studying these issues is important. First, it is pragmatic for all students to learn about the barriers they may face or to which they might unknowingly contribute. It should be pointed out here that discrimination and harassment can be subtle; while most workers or managers are not intentionally engagingn in racist behavior, they may nonetheless unknowingly make statements or engage in actions that are bothersome to co-workers or employees. Second, such barriers to professional success are unethical insofar as they violate the rights of individuals to pursue their interests and goals.
After explaininng why these issues are important to understand and explaining codes or ethics and laws, students should be able to better identify situations in which harassment, discrimination, or privacy issues are present. They may also want to interview some professional engineers about these issues: ask them if they have faced these issues and how they handled them
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Professors can make use of the assignments described in the Background Skills page of this section. Links to scenarios relevant to these issues are listed below
Rosa Lynn Pinkus and Claire Gloeckner have developed an interesting and empirically tested project that helps students learn about these issues by expanding design course material. After having students create scenarios that depict conflicts between these obligations, students should try to do this with their own research and design projects.
In their article, "Want to Help Students Learn Engineering Ethics? Have them Write Case Studies Based on Their Research/Senior Design Project" Pinkus and Gloeckner explain the benefits of this assignment (over having students write about scenarios not associated with their own research).