Engineers at work

+ Are the ethical merits of potential projects or clients given enough credence in decision making processes?

The Leveson Inquiry is investigating the practice and ethics of the UK press, and it made me wonder whether the engineering profession would stand up to a similar level of scrutiny. Our work affects the lives of almost everybody on the planet, but are we sufficiently aware of the ethics of our own behaviour, judgement and practice?

We often, rightly, marvel at our own sense of ingenuity when celebrating feats of modern engineering. Why isn't this sense of achievement corrupted if the project took place in a country where construction workers are expendable and suffer abhorrent health, safety and welfare conditions?

For any building project, why aren’t we more concerned with the ethics of land rights and acquisitions, supply chain members, contract awards or even how the construction materials and equipment (including the conditions associated with their manufacture) are sourced?

By being involved and trying to influence things for the better, in some way, can we really allay our ethical compunction or just avoid passing work to competitors who may not have the same conscientious objections?

In the office, the way we interact with our peers, colleagues or clients is culturally specific and differs from place to place, and from person to person. So even with an obviously extreme concept such as exploitation, the limits of what is considered ethical remain hugely subjective.

Does someone have to feel exploited to actually be exploited?

Take the culture of long working hours, for example. Are people being exploited when they frequently work unpaid, additional time? Or are they being offered, and willingly taking, an opportunity to further their career? And if so, is that behaviour unfair as it potentially prejudices competent and effective colleagues who elect to not work beyond their contracted hours?

I believe, to avoid becoming inadvertently complicit in the unacceptable behaviour of others, there should be wider recognition of the far-reaching ethical implications of all our decisions and the associated impact measured; with greater accountability for those involved.

What do you think? Are the ethical merits of your potential projects or clients given enough credence in your decision making processes? Have you ever been ethically challenged at work and were your colleagues sympathetic or dismissive? What if the ethics and behaviour of engineers was subject to its own Leveson Inquiry? How would we do?