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A Tale of Two Engineers – An Ethical Quandary

Sep 14, 2020

Once upon a time, there were two engineers named “Confident” and “Agitated”. Both engineers were very passionate about being ethical; however, while one faced no challenges, dilemmas, or conflicts related to ethics, the other certainly did.  What is the difference between these two engineers?

During my Needs Assessment meetings with engineers, I typically ask them whether they are able to solve staff, client, and leadership issues with a positive energy. The answers of two engineers with whom I recently met were surprisingly different.  “Confident” stated that engineering issues are relatively easy to resolve with a positive energy because one can always refer to the technical data or OPEGA’s code of standards and ethics. However, “Agitated”, who was also passionate about ethical engineering and business practices, confided that he was often asked to do work in a way that he deemed to be unethical. He was noticeably agitated about this, as this was a common issue for him in his numerous jobs over the years. However, ethics are not the real dilemma for “Agitated,” so what is?

As an engineer, you likely feel that there is a safe way, a right way, a superior quality way, or an effective way to manage a project or complete a job. Others may see the situation differently, and when that other person is your boss or the client, how do you communicate those concerns in a way that strengthens the relationship as an engineering thought leader?

Most differences of opinion are only partial truths. The world is full of grey areas. This is a real opportunity to make your point heard, strengthen the relationship, AND promote positive change in your organization as a thought leader. The quandary is not about whether the request is unethical, but rather how to navigate the situation while maintaining the relationship. 


The Strategy for Navigating the Conversation

How do you prepare for challenging discussions about ethics?  The first step is to establish a mindset that acknowledges the common ground. Visualizing a Venn Diagram can facilitate your thinking process. There’s your perspective; there’s the other person’s perspective, and there’s an area in the middle in which both of you share the same perspective. Begin formulating your thoughts in the middle on common ground. Then, succinctly state your point of view by referencing the technical data and industry standards for ethical conduct. Being succinct shows clarity and confidence - it really does not help the relationship to be vague, indirect, and wordy. If you cannot state your point of view in one or two sentences, then you are not clear in your own mind and you will not be persuasive to the other person. Finally, discipline yourself to find another point from the middle of your mental Venn Diagram again by finding another aspect of the problem in which you both agree. 

How do you talk about ethical issues that demand change at work? After you have established a mindset that is both helpful to the other person and confident in your own perspective (expanded in article below), deliver your counter proposal as a hamburger. The buns are for the relationship – they are the common ground.  The meat is the proposal for change with accompanying evidence.  When you present your proposal for change, be sure to outline the benefits to changing the way the task/project/situation is handled.  Be specific! Why does this need to change? How does changing this help the company or the client? What is the easiest way to make this change? How can you assist in facilitating this change? Of course, it is always a stronger argument if you can present the benefits of the change from the OTHER person’s perspective. If necessary, suggest that this issue be postponed until the next meeting so that you can prepare. This extra time will allow you to present the facts objectively with a clear, calm, confident (slower speaking rate) voice.


 A Sample Proposal for an Ethical Dilemma 

Background: Industry code of conduct and ethics clearly states that engineers will “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Therefore, a professional engineer “will not ship a product if there is any possibility that the server could malfunction and cause physical harm to the customer”. However, Ms. Engineer is directed to ship a product that has a higher likelihood of failure resulting in data loss for the customer, and she is uncomfortable with this.

After creating her mental Venn Diagram and preparing her thoughts, she proposes her perspective on the issue.

We have a five-star customer service rating, and I really enjoy working for a company with a reputation for innovation, quality, and responsiveness. 

I feel that when we send out servers that could cause data malfunction for our customers, although we save money in the short run, we diminish our reputation as an innovation leader.  This will damage our opportunities to secure large, cutting edge projects in the coming years, as these proposals always include quality statistics.

I understand that delivery delays cost money, but to soften the downside, I would be happy to call the customer to explain why the server will be delivered late. I think they will appreciate our honesty and our commitment to their business.

“Confident” and “Agitated” and “Ms. Engineer” are all professional engineers who are concerned about the integrity of their industry. With a clear, confident, authentic communication style, they are not only able to move their call-to-action forward, but build relationships important to their career advancement and solidify their reputation as a thought-leader within their organization, as well as their industry.