It seems not a day passes without news reports of a politician or corporate executive taking bribes, engaging in insider trading, or getting caught up in some other ethical dilemma. As engineers, though, we will more likely find ourselves in situations that have subtler, less-obvious ethical undertones.
Imagine you are the engineer in this fictitious case. Acme Chemical is developing a new coating and has asked its supplier, Warbucks Specialties, to reformulate a critical raw material. Warbucks provided samples of four new formulations (R1 through R4) for performance and product safety testing. Acme is very conservative, and although the Product Safety Agency requires toxicity tests to be repeated three times, Acme’s policy is to conduct the test five times, and if the product fails on even one of the tests, the formulation is deemed unsafe. All of the samples of R1, R2, and R3 passed the toxicity tests; the fourth sample of R4 failed by a small margin. However, R4 significantly outperforms R1, R2, and R3. What would you do?
In “Ethics — Examining Your Engineering Responsibility” (pp. 21–29), Deborah Grubbe points out that although the basic principles of ethics are sometimes clearly black and white (e.g., tell the truth, don’t hurt others), ethics often comes in many shades of gray. Engineering ethics often has nothing to do with technology and frequently revolves around communication, decision-making patterns, and conflicts related to time and money. Grubbe discusses several well-known incidents, including the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters and the BP Texas City refinery explosion, with a focus on their nontechnical causes. She then offers advice on how to avoid potentially difficult situations and what you might do if you find yourself in one.
One option she does not recommend is to wait, hope nothing bad happens, be careful about what you say, and deal with any consequences later. But difficult situations do not get better or go away by themselves. Events typically spiral further and further out of control, and the consequences of not acting just get worse.
Toyota’s recall of more than 12 million vehicles between 2008 and 2010 and the multimillion-dollar penalties levied against it demonstrate the path that such a spiral can take. Shannon Bowen, a professor in the Univ. of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications who studies ethical decision-making within the highest levels of organizations, conducted a quantitative analysis of media stories and press releases related to those recalls. As early as 2004, “they had quality-control issues across the board — steering, braking systems, and more. But the real problem was how they responded to the quality issues,” she says. Bowen examined 356 news stories and 170 of the company’s press releases. She found that while the company framed its problems as accidental — the result of inadvertent technical errors or things beyond the company’s control (for example, shifting the blame to parts suppliers or incompetent drivers) — the print media more often reported that preventive action on Toyota’s part could have reduced negative outcomes, including injuries and deaths.
Bowen offers this advice to engineers who might get caught up in an ethical dilemma: “Have the moral courage to point out and criticize flaws. Ask questions about defects, potential failures, poor supply chain materials, or other potential problems that could lead to low quality or a failure scenario. Be the ‘What-if …?’ person in the room. Your organization’s reputation depends on how vigorously you can safeguard it by asking tough questions.”
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