Importance of Good Professional Sense

Chemical Process Industry engineers don’t encounter ethical situations every day, fortunately. Yet, when we do, the decision-making is heavily weighted by our awareness of the importance of the potential safety, environmental and quality-control hazards associated with what we do.

engineers making tough choicesPhoto credit: CameliaTWU via Decorators Guru / CC BY-NC-ND

Chemical Engineering tackled the topic of Engineering Ethics IQ in a special discussion last year. They also sought the opinions and comments of readers regarding specific hypothetical cases in a survey aiming at discussing ethically charged situations.

The survey:

  • Questioned the ethics of using a miniscule amount of a poisonous additive to a product.
  • Considered whether or not to continue testing with a critical gasket potentially leaking.
  • Addressed proper reporting and handling of waste.
  • Covered insider information and vendor incentives.
  • Examined acknowledging responsibility.

I’ll be interested to see the magazine’s survey results. In the meantime, I was inspired to look back at the NSPE Code of Ethics that notes, “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.” The AIChE, too, strives to uphold and advance ethical thinking, reminding its members to use “their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.”

My thinking on this important topic was jogged on the golf course, as I mentioned previously, when I was thinking of the honesty of Brian Davis on the PGA Tour. Revisiting the coverage of that event for this blog, I came across an insightful New York Times opinion piece pointing out that Davis’s behavior highlighted “the refreshing contrast between golf and other sports.”

The columnist observed, “In other sports, players unabashedly claim to have (take your pick) made the catch, avoided the tag, cleanly blocked the shot, had both feet inbounds, etc., only to be overruled by officials or replay cameras.” Whereas, in 1925 golfer Bobby Jones shrugged off praise of his calling a similar penalty on himself by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

This is how we, as chemical process engineers, ought to think as well. That ethical action is not a choice, but the only way to respond. Pressures at work — be they related to time, profitability, or reputation — cannot diminish the fact that ethical decision-making is always good professional sense.

Ethical Engineers are Prepared

On the golf course recently, I was reminded of Brian Davis. Do you remember? In 2010, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself in tournament play. His violation, nudging a reed aside on the 18th, cost him $411,000 as he ultimately finished second to Jim Furyk.

process engineer problem solving
Photo credit: Tord Sollie via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Now, I haven’t come close to winning a major tournament — although I did earn “closest to the hole” in a Gas Processors Tournament in Madrid, Spain. Nevertheless, when I hit the links I assiduously keep track of my strokes — all of them — because it’s the right thing to do. Somehow this got me thinking of how doing the right thing in chemical process engineering can, in fact, prove as costly as Davis’s honorable action. Yet choosing the other, less-ethical path could cost human lives from say bacterial contamination or ignored safety procedures.

Karl Stephan, writing in Chemical Engineering, acknowledged sound ethics in our field demands “a large dose of technical know-how” as well as a sound ethical foundation when confronting “ethically charged questions.”

Texas State University’s Stephan may have been a Boy Scout as his suggestion for engineers is to “be prepared” to identify ethical problems with seven steps to better navigate the situation. I paraphrase here:

  1. Know what you believe. Ask yourself in advance what kind of situations you would be willing to risk your reputation or your job for.
  2. Recognize ethical problems. Take stock of your individual role and what could go wrong, go unreported, or cause harm to better understand the scope of your responsibility.
  3. Identify stakeholders. Having identified possible ethical problems, consider everyone who might be affected (whether if something is done or if a problem is ignored).
  4. Analyze interests. Take the time to anticipate each of those stakeholders interest in the various outcomes of an ethical decision.
  5. Examine alternatives. Weigh the possibilities such as doing nothing, doing nothing at least for a time, or acting immediately to determine reasonable courses of action.
  6. Execute decision. With all the thinking you’ve been doing, you should be in a position to implement a decision – even a difficult one.
  7. Document everything. Try and collect a paper trail of the entire process as soon as you are aware of an ethical issue. You will be better able to recall details if called upon if you have the complete, accurate information.

What I appreciate about Stephan’s approach is that he takes the abstraction of ethics and turns it into a process. That’s what I call knowing your audience. Ethics is anathema to engineers in a way. Not because we want to do whatever we want, without caring a whit for the consequences, but because it is not a hard science. Many of us enjoy the one right answer that engineering often represents, whereas ethics is all about ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, there can be no ambiguity in handling ethical situations in chemical process engineering. We must implement clear rules about what is ethical and actively seek to do the right thing — as Davis did. This is the only foundation upon which I will stand for generating revenue and building my and my company’s reputations.