Why ethical awareness should be at the front of your skills portfolio
Image credit: Robyn Mackenzie/Dreamstime
Engineers need to acknowledge that the right time to consider ethical aspects of a project is at the start, not as they arise or when the job’s completed.
‘Well’ said our engineer ruefully, … ‘it has been a pretty business for me. I have lost my thumb and I have lost a fifty-guinea fee, and what have I gained?’
‘Experience,’ said Holmes, laughing.
Sherlock Holmes’s remark in the 1892 story ‘The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb’ should be taken as a warning shot across the bows for those of us who, finding ourselves out of our depth in a new and challenging situation, fail to catch on quickly enough. And, as like as not, find ourselves in an ethical quagmire.
It happened to me a long time ago. In the context of a contractual commitment by my employer to deliver certain items of equipment on time and at a specified cost, three things became clear at a late stage. First, that the company had misled the client – and perhaps also itself – as to its ability to meet the contractual dates; second, that this information had been withheld from the client until a very late stage; and third, that we had not put into the project the resources that, on any reasonable forecast, were essential to in-house support of the project.
It rightly fell to me, as the supplier’s project manager, to chair the uncomfortable meeting at which it became clear to the client that we were going to let him down. The emotional temperature of that meeting was unforgettable, and although subsequent renegotiations cleared the air to some extent, I was rightly reproved for having revealed internal weaknesses in our management of the project.
The lessons I learned then, principally about open dealing with clients and colleagues, will remain with me permanently, but it is fair to say that the ethical issues involved were not scrutinised by any of us at the time. If a degree of ethical awareness had been at the forefront of our minds, an uncomfortable and unanswerable question would have posed itself: would the sequence of events have been any different? Perhaps - but to my recollection our concerns at the time related to commercial pressures and personal culpability.
Over the last ten years, in teaching a module on ethics to second-year engineering undergraduates, I’ve used several examples, some written up and published by business schools, all of which illustrate how negligible a role ethical attitudes played in the outcomes. Why else would they be chosen as cases for study? But the key question, after all this study, must be - has anything changed?
There’s a sentence from an article ‘Can Britain Make It?’ written by Don Leech and published in the April 2001 issue of the IEE’s Engineering Management Journal that I’ve been reminded of many times as I’ve worked with companies over the years: “British engineering is not very good; British management is even worse.”
We know that only excellent management can bring lasting advantage, yet we still fail to remind ourselves of the features that distinguish good management attitudes and practices from bad, and the priorities in this catalogue – among which ethical awareness is fundamental.
During many years of teaching project management to undergraduate and postgraduate students I admit to mentioning ethics rarely, if at all. In light of the personal experience described above, and more recent teaching, I’ve come to realise not just that we engineers must think more deeply about the ethical element in our lives, and not merely that we have the Statement of Ethical Principles [PDF] compiled by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council to inform us, but that we must put ethical awareness first in our portfolio of management issues and skills. Adding ethics later as a kind of overlay – asking “how did we do ethically?” in a post-mortem discussion – is no longer adequate, if it ever was. Afterwards is too late. The first question in our minds as we begin any project must surely be: ‘In all that follows, what ethical pitfalls might confront us, and how shall we address them?’
It is characteristic of ethical dilemmas that they rarely present themselves in the same way on more than one occasion. We want to learn from our reading of case studies, but my guess is that few engineers, finding themselves facing a personal quandary, could reach a book down from the shelf to seek a worked solution. To some degree, all challenging situations will present new features that make yesterday’s solution more or less irrelevant. In today’s competitive business environment, calling for ever-improving quality and reducing costs, management text books are of little use. We have to think for ourselves. If we do not, if we merely apply a formulaic response, we stand to lose far more than a thumb and fifty guineas.
Why are we so preoccupied with case studies? Even students slaving over an assignment know that tomorrow will be different from yesterday. They will not be able to recreate the circumstances described, and if they tried to do so when their next problem hits them, common sense alone should alert them to the essential differences. Our ethical stances are perpetually trying to catch up with our other management priorities. A lot more than thumbs and guineas are at stake.
This is the line I’ve emphasised in my new book, ‘Ethics for Engineers – a Brief Introduction’: that when all is said and done, we and the team are on our own. Trust and leadership are still the basic qualities that will allow and encourage early debate on what lies ahead. This should start, I would argue, with the ethical attitudes, challenges and disagreements that must be discussed before, not after, the work is done.
Dr Anthony F Bainbridge CEng FIET is a teaching fellow at the University of Bath in the UK. He worked in the aerospace industry for many years before beginning a new career as business consultant specialising in business development and management, and in the 1990s founded and chaired the IET’s consultancy network. ‘Ethics for Engineers – a Brief Introduction’ (£35.99, ISBN 9781032076904) is published by CRC Press.
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