27 June 2016

Matt Winthrop

Engineering Insight: Making the Right Call

Code of Ethical Conduct - Make the Right Choice

Exercising judgement is part of being a professional – but when it comes to ethical considerations, the benchmark for getting it right isn’t always clear-cut. Our new Code of Ethical Conduct comes into force on 1 July. It provides a decision-making framework to help engineers balance competing pressures.

How do you consider engineering ethics in your day-to-day practice? Say your supervising engineer modifies the drawing you’ve signed off on to reduce manufacturing costs. It’s standard practice at your company, and highly unlikely to affect safety or quality. Are you obligated to report it? Our new Code of Ethical Conduct doesn’t have all the answers. It does, however, provide the framework for ethical behaviour, setting standards and encouraging engineers to consider the impact of their behaviour and wider context of their work.

For many years, New Zealand’s engineering profession has had two codes of ethics: one for IPENZ Members and one for Chartered Professional Engineers. The codes are virtually identical in content and the standards they set but expressed in different ways. This is the first update since 1996, apart from minor revisions in 2005, bringing together the two codes for the first time.

Transportation engineer Steve Abley FIPENZ chaired the Working Group that developed the new Code of Ethical Conduct. He says the Canterbury earthquakes and subsequent Royal Commission were the impetuses to bring ethical issues up to speed with current practice. “But it was also much wider than that,” he says. “Pike River and a number of disciplinary cases had put the spotlight on ethics. Basically, any disciplinary case comes back to the Code – that’s why it’s important the Code is relevant to its time and sets the right standards. In light of all these issues, IPENZ began to consider a review back in 2012.”

Determining best practice

The top priority was addressing the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission’s recommendations to clarify our Code of Ethics in relation to reporting risks to public health and safety. Engineers needed to be more accountable in the eyes of the public, while the Code itself needed to be relevant, logical in structure and easy to interpret. It was vital that whatever was proposed had the profession’s endorsement.

The Working Group looked at what needed to be added to, revised and dropped from the existing Code of Ethics. Their proposals went through two rounds of Member consultation, before being approved by our Board. “We talked through some pretty gnarly issues that we had to form a position on,” says Steve. “Most engineering problems will have a technical solution that reflects best practice. With this task, it was up to us to determine best practice.”

They looked at examples of ethical codes from around New Zealand and the world. Some covered the full extent of ethical scenarios and considerations, while others were far less prescriptive. The group concluded the Code shouldn’t have pages of rules about what engineers should and shouldn’t do. It needed to be short and succinct; a standalone document that could be easily followed and applied.

The first round of Member consultation resulted in significant changes. Proposed explanatory guidelines were dropped in favour of simply having an updated Code. Feedback in the second round was generally supportive – bar a challenging position here and there. “We dwelt on some of the more difficult feedback for quite some time – some very valid points were raised that we had to address,” says Steve.

New thinking

Andrew Read FIPENZ, who joined the Working Group in 2013, says much of what they discussed challenged his thinking on many ethical issues. One difficulty they faced, for example, was balancing the ethical requirement to report adverse consequences against retaining confidentiality.

“Let’s say an engineer works for a firm with a large defence contract,” says Andrew. “As part of that contract, all employees have signed a confidentiality agreement. The engineer feels the company is breaching the Code in some way. Is that engineer obligated to break the agreement and report an ethical breach to IPENZ? We landed at a position where the obligation to report doesn’t necessarily mean you wave a banner on the streets – it means you start a step-by-step process; maybe you say to your boss ‘I have concerns about this’.”

The revised Code emphasises behaviour, not hard-and-fast rules. Engineers have a new obligation to report adverse consequences. This means taking action if you observe something of concern. Engineers are now required to report significant breaches of the Code by other engineers. Other additions include new health and safety duties, in line with the new Health and Safety at Work Act. Also included are new requirements for keeping knowledge and skills up to date, and treating people with respect.

The previous requirement to inform an engineer when reviewing their work has been removed, which proved to be particularly contentious. Andrew says: “As a consulting engineer, I felt this was important to retain, and so did the other consulting engineers in the room. We believed this was an ethical obligation. The issue was teased out in a number of discussions, but the consumer and legal representatives on the group brought us round to the fact that while it might be good professional practice, it wasn’t an ethical requirement.”

Applying the Code

So what does the revised Code mean for professional practice, in how engineers apply ethics in their work? For one, says Andrew, it recognises engineering judgement involves more than just technical analysis. “Often in engineering there are multiple answers to any given problem. How you get to the most appropriate one involves using judgement. This involves anything from understanding your brief, to what the environmental effects might be, to how what you’re designing might affect people’s health and safety.”

The Code also recognises that engineers need to communicate in ways that others – especially those who don’t specialise in their field – can understand. Andrew says “We’ve got to stop thinking of engineers as just being solvers of technical problems. We’ve got to communicate our solutions more effectively”.

What the Code isn’t designed for, says Andrew, is to be used as a yardstick by which engineers who fall by the wayside are punished. “Nor is it a bar you achieve hoping you don’t get caught. It’s a way of working and interacting with people. If you’re an engineer who genuinely wants to do the right thing, is doing good technical work and keeping up with your competence but make a genuine mistake, the Code isn’t there to haul you over the coals. It’s about helping you get back on track – that’s what a profession’s about.”

The new Code comes into effect on 1 July. We will be working with Professional Development Partners, other employers, Branches and interest groups to encourage discussion about the new Code and how to approach ethical issues in practice.

Andrew says the Code’s release will be an opportunity to not only widely publicise the key changes, but also to get engineers thinking about ethics and professionalism more broadly. “We want engineers to understand that ethical behaviour is something they should think about, discuss and use as an underlying principle in their work.” He says the changes in the Code will challenge engineers to think more carefully about what they do and their responsibilities to themselves, the profession and society. “I see this as something all engineers who are committed to the profession they’re a part of will embrace.”

Find out more about our new Code of Ethical Conduct

This article featured in our June/July issue of Engineering Insight, delivered to IPENZ Members. Not a member? Learn about the benefits of becoming one