Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Stay Ethical

Most people I know joined engineering with a passion for making great products. Engineering ethics classes seemed like a joke; who would ever associate his or her name with a product that was less than perfect? But when you enter the real world there are extreme pressures to churn out designs quickly to meet superficial deadlines. And what is worse is that you sometimes have a team of nontechnical salespeople promising clients you can and will make something that may not even be physically possible.

This puts you,  as the engineer,  in a sticky situation. Do you succumb to time and management pressure,  or do you maintain quality even if that means missing deadlines or providing something different than what was originally requested? The answer for an outsider is obvious,  because many of  the products we create as engineers can cause injury and even death if they are not properly designed. That doesn't make standing up to your peers and your boss any easier.

My suggestions when put in an ethically compromising position are as follows:

1) Write your boss and/or the person requesting you make an impossible decision an email.

Heads up: this is exactly what they don't want you to do,  because it puts them in a sticky situation. While it should be a really nice and accommodating email,  it should also detail the problems you have. Once it is in writing,  it becomes "discoverable"  in the case of a lawsuit. Essentially this means you are putting their ass on the line along with yours,  which is why you need to be sure it's done in the nicest,  most innocent way possible. The reason I recommend this is because people suddenly become much more ethical when they are accountable for their decisions.


" I wanted to update you on the progress of X project.  While I am doing everything I can to complete this project on time,  I  don't believe the existing deadline will allow us enough time to ensure a quality product."

2) Stand up for your point of view.

If something feels wrong, it probably is. Carefully think through what you feel is wrong, do some research, and don't be afraid to disagree with people (even your bosses) over something that is important to you. Keep in mind, you need to pick your battles because ethical problems can range in severity. Not telling Suzie Q. that she is going to be fired in two weeks when she's about to buy a house may not be the best thing, but it also may not be a big enough deal to risk your job.

3) If it is really unethical  and nobody is making an effort to fix it, look for a new job.

If you are in this position, you'll know it. It's terrible and uncomfortable, but it is important to keep your integrity.

With all that said, I hope that you'll never have to use this advice. But keep in mind, these issues do arise more than we'd like to admit.



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