Engineering Ethics Update
| NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR ENGINEERING ETHICS |
August 1996 NIEE Newsletter
Table of Contents:
Message from the President
Robert L. Nichols, P.E., NIEE President
Although progress seems slow at times, I am confident that the National Institute for Engineering Ethics is making progress. The NIEE membership is small in number, but continues to build on its solid base.
NIEE is in process of incorporating in Virginia. An application will be submitted to the Internal Revenue Service for a tax exempt status under section 501(c)3. If the tax exempt status is granted, then contributions to NIEE will be federal tax deductible. This will enable individuals to make gifts for dedicated purposes. Of course, firms and corporations can make contributions as business deductions now.
Looking to the future, NIEE is beginning to develop a long range plan. Philip E. Ulmer, P.E., chair of the Planning Committee, would appreciate your suggestions. Please send your thoughts to Phil at Northwest Safety Management, Inc., 17710 Nitoanya Circle, Eagle River, Alaska 99577.
The publication, Professional Ethics and Engineering, A Resource Guide, is being updated and expanded. It should be available by the end of the year. The original guide, published in September 1990, was well received and is an excellent resource for finding what is available on engineering ethics.
This edition of Engineering Ethics Update has two articles on "whistleblowing." Should NIEE become involved in this issue as suggested in one of the articles? Please share your thoughts with me or with the authors of the articles.
I would appreciate hearing from the membership at:
Robert L. Nichols, P.E., President
National Institute for Engineering Ethics
One South Main, Webb City, Missouri 64870
Phone: (417)673-7151 Toll Free Phone: (888)673-7151 FAX: (417)673-5308
Whistleblowing: What have We Learned Since the Challenger?
Illinois Institute of Technology
The tenth anniversary of the Challenger disaster in January of 1996 brought renewed attention to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who is perhaps the most widely known whistleblower. Many people are now familiar with details about how the launch went forward in unusually cold temperatures against the recommendation of the engineers. Going over the events again, we look for lessons or at least points that deserve more emphasis. One such point is that it is difficult to say what defines an action as whistleblowing. A second is that Whistleblowing is not only excruciatingly difficult, from a practical point of view; it is also morally complex. One modest guideline emerges from exploring these points.
What is Whistleblowing? The word carries strong images -- the sharp sound of a whistle giving a warning of harm or calling a halt to actions that have gone out of bounds. Yet, those are not apt images for Roger Boisjoly's heroic action. What he did that branded him as a whistleblower was to tell a Presidential Commission after the disaster his story of the events that had led to the disaster. The tragedy he had warned against had already occurred. In the face of strong opposing pressure from top officials of his company, he gave the commission his history of the O-ring problems and the decision to launch. Generally, the whistleblower's action is forward looking. While Boisjoly's account had implications for the redesign of the shuttle in the future, it served chiefly to explain how the terrible failure, both technical and moral, had occurred. It seems that the high visibility of that very serious failure and of Boisjoly's disclosure helped to put his report in the category of whistleblowing.
The warning whistle which Boisjoly and some of his colleagues sounded in the off-line caucus during the teleconference before the launch does not count as whistleblowing. Why is that? It may be because the term Whistleblowing is reserved for actions of disclosure when the whistleblower steps outside of approved organizational channels to reveal a significant moral problem. Warning against the launch in the off-line caucus during the teleconference was acting within approved channels. This interpretation is confirmed by Boisjoly's later comment that once the decision to launch had been made, he and the other engineers in Utah fell into line, as expected, and accepted the decision. It would have been a violation of accepted procedures to continue to oppose the launch. Should we say then that his testifying later before the Presidential Commission was stepping outside of approved channels? Through outside company channels, Boisjoly spoke up in a legally legitimate, appropriate forum. He did not go outside approved channels; rather, the account he gave was not the approved account.
Another instance will underscore the difficulty of fashioning definitions that fit the intricacies of actual circumstances. Boisjoly's colleague, Allan MacDonald, Morton Thiokol's liaison for the Solid Rocket Booster project at the Kennedy Space Center is not widely known as a whistleblower. Absent from the fateful caucus in Utah, he was on the job at the Kennedy Space Center. However, after the managers in Utah made the recommendation to launch, he continued to argue for delay, saying that if the mission failed, he would not want to have to explain to a board of inquiry the decision to launch. Did he violate procedures or go outside approved channels? It would seem so, but his action did not result in his being labeled a whistleblower.
If it is a distinguishing mark of actions labeled Whistleblowing that the agent intends to force attention to a serious moral problem, both Boisjoly's and MacDonald's responses qualify. This feature is the foundation of the public's interest in whistleblowing. By bringing such serious problems to light, whistleblowers contribute to protecting the public's welfare. There have been instances of serious moral problems that were well known inside companies but did not get exposed for lack of a whistleblower. An example is the DC-10 cargo door problem that was implicated in the crash near Paris which took 346 lives in 1974. Organizations offer settings in which problems with potential for catastrophe can slowly ripen and somehow remain unattended to and unexposed even though many people in those settings are aware of the problems.
Occasions when the whistle was not blown bring to mind yet another feature of Whistleblowing retaliation against the whistleblower. This is a predictable sequel and a strong deterrent. Boisjoly suffered retaliation from Morton Thiokol. The head of the Presidential Commission was moved to bring Morton Thiokol's treatment of him to national attention. In spite of this public reprimand, or maybe because of it, Boisjoly's situation did not improve. Retaliation may be the most predictable feature of Whistleblowing, perhaps enough to make it a defining feature.
When whistleblowers make their disclosures, others stand accused. People who feel accused or allied to those accused tend to hit back. That deflects attention from the accused. Retaliation is very damaging. That is why advice to whistleblowers includes the recommendation that the whistleblower resign in advance of or in conjunction with blowing the whistle. Yet, as Roger Boisjoly demonstrates, some whistleblowers manage not only to survive, but to make new careers. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, Boisjoly prepared for and passed the Professional Engineer's examination.
The predictability of retaliation points to the moral complexities of whistleblowing. Both the accusation and the retaliation produce injury. Accusations not only threaten the careers of those on whom the whistle is blown; they also disrupt collegial relationships and other informal relations and networks. Nevertheless, the Whistleblowing may be morally justifiable when the moral wrong exposed is very serious. Retaliation injures whistleblowers, spouses, and those who depend on whistleblowers' earnings. One could argue that the potential whistleblower is obligated to include these family members in the process of reaching a decision about blowing the whistle.
Since Whistleblowing can be so damaging, many have tried to devise mechanisms in organizations to deal with "bad news" and undercut the need for whistleblowing. Yet, Robert Sprague, a Whistleblowing scientist who successfully returned to his career after suffering retaliation, has observed that there will always be devious people whose conduct in specific circumstances will give rise to the need to blow the whistle.1
It is part of the moral complexity that Whistleblowing presupposes that somewhere there is someone with appropriate authority who will appreciate the moral importance of the disclosure and will respond. Sometimes this is a naive faith in the employer's top management, a failure to realize the extent of local corruption. Yet, it is important to recognize that Whistleblowing is premised on background conditions that uphold standards of morality. Some observers suggest that appropriate background conditions can be provided by laws that protect those who blow the whistle to protect the public. However, the many laws already enacted to protect whistleblowers have not changed it from being a dangerous undertaking.
Why has Whistleblowing drawn so much attention in engineering? Part of the answer is that it dramatizes the moral situation of many engineers. Built into codes of ethics, engineering education, and technical practice is an orientation toward safety. The technical knowledge and organizational positions of engineers enable them to detect serious moral problems that affect the public welfare. Yet, engineers' organizational positions are such that they cannot bring appropriate attention to serious problems they detect unless they can convince others to react. Whistleblowing so naturally comes up as an option that instructors of engineering ethics pay careful attention to fostering in students the skills of persuading, negotiating, and allying with colleagues that support other options.
Finally, what guidelines for potential whistleblowers can we extract from this survey of issues? We should notice that in actual circumstances practical aspects are interwoven with moral aspects. The reasons for involving family members in deciding whether to blow the whistle are both practical and moral. This is also true of a crucial piece of advice for any potential whistleblower: to keep full and accurate records. Boisjoly has said, "I was the only one who had real-time notes on the [pivotal] meeting that took place... When I turned in my memos, the whole complexion of the investigation changed. They could no longer just look at the technical causes. They had to go and address now what kind of management tomfoolery had been going on.2 And the scientist, Robert Sprague, has said, "One of the characteristics of the successful whistleblower is that they're compulsive record keepers. And that often turns the tide."3
|1 Robert Sprague, Personal
communication to author.
2 Franklin Hoke, "Veteran Whistleblowers Advise Other Would-Be Ethical Resisters," The Scientist, May 15, 1995, pp. 1 and 15.
Vivian Weil serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Profession at Illinois Institute of Technology.
"Stick" Incentive Proposals for Eliminating Whistleblowing
Walter L. Elden, P.E., IEEE, NIEE, CPSR
When an engineer or scientist finds it necessary to dissent on ethical or technical grounds, an employee-company conflict generally is inevitable. If this conflict is not resolved in a professional and fair manner, the professional may be compelled to go outside and "blow the whistle". This may then lead to a worsening conflict situation, harassment, employee discharge and sometimes, legal court action.
Several bold initiative incentives are proposed for reducing, if not eliminating, whistleblowing. What is proposed is the creation of a "profession-wide" engineering-scientific entity, the Corporate Accountability Project (CAP), patterned after the Government Accountability Project and the Hanford Joint Council Project, operating with a "due process" procedure for conflict resolution. These will establish both a "carrot" incentive for eliminating the need for whistleblowing, and a "stick" incentive for supporting/defending the whistleblower if that occurs in the public's interest.
Protection of the Public is a Professional's Overriding Obligation
If our Codes of Ethics continue to proclaim that as professionals, we must place "protecting the public safety, health, welfare, environment, ...etc" above all else, and if that means blowing the whistle (committing career suicide), then, if the public won't, the engineering-scientific professions must both (1) support and (2) defend these individuals. If this is not done, then our professions will have duped these persons into believing that our codes of ethics really were important and had the backings of the parent societies.
A Whistleblowing Alternative is Needed
More and more employers of engineers are establishing their own internal Standards of Business Conduct. These cover the rules, regulations, standards and laws encountered in daily business life and provide to the employees the standards that are to be followed in complying with these areas. If matters of ethical conflict or technical dissent arise, the engineer employee sometimes evolves into a position of being at odds with his/her employer. If the situation is not able to be resolved within the employment context, the engineer may feel it necessary to go outside, and "blow the whistle". Shouldn't there be a way to resolve this within the employment context to remove the need to feel it necessary to "blow the whistle"? Why not establish a profession-wide set of guidelines, which, if followed, would provide fairness and integrity and resolve the conflict? On the other hand, what should be done when the whistleblower is discriminated against by his or her employer for acting to protect the public?
Establishing "Carrot" and "Stick" Incentives
There is an opportunity to create "carrot" and "stick" incentives. The carrot incentive could be the creation of an internally administered "due process" procedure. This would be adopted and used to resolve ethical conflict or technical dissent within an affected employer's organization. Properly instituting and administering such a "due process" procedure should greatly minimize, if not eliminate, the need for a professional to feel the need to "blow the whistle". On the other hand, when this is not followed or fails to achieve the desired results, then the stick incentive could be applied for supporting the actions of the whistleblower from discrimination. This new entity, CAP, would step forward and defend the rights of the whistleblower and protect him/her from harassment, blacklisting or discharge.
Creating a Carrot "Due Process" Incentive for Reducing Whistleblowing
The "carrot" incentive would establish a profession-wide set of ethical/technical dissent "due process" guidelines, developed by the engineering and scientific profession and offered to organizational employers for their adoption. These would provide a written procedure which would be administered in resolving ethical conflict or technical dissent situations arising during a professional's practice. The context for applying this due process procedure would be within an organization or company where the professional's employment is provided.
Elements of the Due Process Procedure
Elements of a due process procedure for reducing/eliminating the need for whistleblowing would consist of the following:
Organizational Carrot and Stick Models
There are two effective organizational models for creating the carrot and the stick incentive organizations. The carrot model is the Hanford Joint Council Project in Southeast Washington State. The stick model is the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
The Hanford Joint Council for Resolving Employee Concerns, is an independent panel with representatives from the contractor, public interest and whistleblower communities. Currently, it is an experimental step toward participatory democracy, and an opportunity for the key players at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to engage in critical discourse to resolve issues critical to the health and vitality of the state, the region and the nation. It has the full support of the state of Washington Department of Ecology, which participated on the Task Force which designed the Council, and the Department of Energy, which also had a representative on the task force. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary has herself expressed unqualified support for the Council. The Internet WEB page address for the Hanford Joint Council is: http://www.halcyon.com/tomcgap/www/hjc.html
The Government Accountability Project is the nation's premiere advocate for conscientious employees who "blow the whistle" on waste, fraud, abuse, and threats to public health, worker safety, and the environment. Since 1977, GAP has ensured a diversity of opinion in major policy debates facing the nation and protected ethical dissent in the workplace. The mission of the Government Accountability Project is to protect the public interest and promote government and corporate accountability by advancing occupational free speech, defending whistleblowers and empowering citizen activists. GAP also advises public agencies and legislative bodies about management policies and practices that help government deal more effectively with substantive information and concerns, while protecting the jobs and identities of those who provide this critical information. GAP's Internet WEB page address is: http://www.halcyon.com/tomcgap/
Creating a Corporate Accountability Project
This proposed new entity, called the Corporate Accountability Project, is patterned after the Government Accountability Project, with elements of the Hanford Joint Council added.
Needing a large size to be effective, this new entity will need to have the right staff and resources and be autonomous enough to be capable and willing to defend courageous professionals who are willing to, and do, place their careers on the line. This will require lawyers, experts and money to be effective and accomplish the desired goals.
We may be able to create such an entity if we can succeed in getting enough of the engineering and scientific organizations to join together, fund and staff CAP, and charge it with the right mission. In other words, to achieve this we must unite forces and resources and take a profession-wide approach. If one part of the profession is affected, CAP should go to assist and defend it. If another part is affected, CAP must move there likewise. CAP must be autonomous and free from corporate control or influence.
Grassroots Volunteers Are Needed
This proposal will succeed with the commitment of individuals, time, planning, politicking, money, luck, etc. Members of the engineering and scientific professions are invited to lend their support, feedback, suggestions, time and commitment to this initiative. Who is willing to volunteer to work together toward the creation of CAP?
A "due process" procedure, in conjunction with an entity patterned after the Hanford Joint Council Project, are proposed for the creation of a "carrot" incentive for reducing, if not eliminating, whistleblowing. On the other hand, a Corporate Accountability Project entity, patterned after the successful Government Accountability Project, is a good model for the "stick" incentive. It is likely for this initiative to take years to achieve, but the profession owes this much to its members. In the end, when a profession does not support or defend its members' actions, a fraud of the highest degree is created; one which needs to be rectified.
Walter L. Elden may be contacted at: 611 Mimosa Ct., Melbourne, FL 32940 or W.firstname.lastname@example.org
Ethics and the Professional
Henry P. Lang P.E. Lang Consulting
The engineer today is faced with numerous conflicts of interest in the daily pursuit of his profession. Not the least is his career and family life when it comes to "blowing-the-whistle". This was highlighted in the recent expose in the March 14 issue of the Times Magazine, "The Nuclear Warriors". The story of the Russian mining engineer, Peter Palchinsky, may serve as an inspiration and hope for engineers today, perhaps with less drastic consequences in the light of today's public support of the engineering professions and professional society activities and support.
Mr. Loren R. Grahm, the author of the book, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer - Technology and the Fall of the Russian Empire, tells a sad, but mindful story in the life of Peter Palchinsky.
Peter was born October 5, 1875 near St. Petersburg. He graduated with honors from the local mining institute in 1900. While a student, he followed the writing of Peter Kropotkin, a non-violent anarchist, who favored social insurance, shorter working days and adequate pay. A revolution in 1905 failed to bring about a change in the harsh social environment under the Tzar. The government's misuse of technology and squandering of human resources incensed the professional character of Peter and he "blew the whistle". He was imprisoned, but was released shortly thereafter by the efforts of his wife and friends.
Peter continued his professional career and went on to criticize Stalin's projects: the White Sea Canal, Dnieper River Dam and the Steel City of Magnitogorsk. His days were numbered, and he was executed in May 1929.
Loren goes on to highlight the failure of the Soviet Union's industrialization programs of the '70s and '80s; not the least of which was the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
Henry P. Lang, P.E. may be reached at: Lang Consulting, 2117 Belair Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99517
Inspiring Others to Ethical
Create an Ethics Task Force to Lead the Way
from the Ethics Resource Center
We all want to work in an environment in which legal and ethical behavior is the norm. The difficulty in fostering such an environment comes in finding a way to convince everyone in an organization that they should make ethics a priority. One answer is to create a task force made up of a core group of leaders in your company or industry to chart the course for implementing a comprehensive ethics initiative. Such a task force can inspire other individuals and companies to make ethical behavior a cornerstone of their management philosophy.
The process is sometimes jump-started if a crisis has struck. But a proactive approach based solely on the desire to establish a framework in which ethical behavior can flourish is enough to spark the fires of change. After all, it is not getting any easier out there, no matter what business you're in. A long list of social and market forces have made business decisions tougher and the consequences of making mistakes greater than they used to be.
Once the decision has been made to implement an ethics initiative, the real work begins. Those who spearhead such a project must put the effort into developing an ethics program that is truly effective. Selecting individuals who are willing to make such a commitment is crucial to the success of a task force.
There are several other critical questions which will need to be answered early in the process: What is the scope of the effort? What do you hope to accomplish? How will you measure "success"? Your task force members will need to have these answers prepared so they can "make the case" to the rest of the organization or other companies within your industry. Then they must sell the value of the program to the organization. Ethics, however, is not an off-the-shelf product. If the beneficiaries of the program don't invest the effort to make the program their own, it will never be truly effective.
Starting the Process
The task force should begin by meeting with representative groups from within your organization or industry. These should be real give-and-take discussions, in which a chosen representative or outside expert explains the value and likely shape of an ethics program, and participants give their initial reactions about the program's applicability and usefulness. The task force should take advantage of these initial sessions to conduct an informal survey to gather baseline data on the types of ethical issues employees are facing on a regular basis.
Along with the information gathered during an initial assessment -- often conducted by an objective outside organization -- the task force should also examine the current industry climate to identify external factors that may affect employee conduct: industry change; increased competition, downsizing and consolidation; increased regulation; or more intense scrutiny from the media and the public. By acknowledging these outside forces, a realistic program can be formulated rather than an idealistic one that has no chance for success.
Armed with information on which it can base an effective strategy, the task force should agree on its specific mission, clearly defining goals and outlining objectives for each about how those goals can be achieved. The task force may even want to consider establishing two separate missions: one for the overall ethics initiative and a second, more specific one for the task force itself.
Setting a New Standard
Creating an ethics task force to identify and clarify the specific issues faced by the employees in your organization or industry is just the first step in implementing a comprehensive program. By empowering this core group, you can guide the direction of an ethics initiative and inspire others to action by sharing enthusiasm for and demonstrating commitment to the program. An ethics task force can help set the standard for a more ethical business environment.
Here are ten tips your company may want to follow when taking those first steps toward implementing an ethics initiative within your organization or industry.
If you would like additional information about establishing an ethics task force to spearhead an ethics initiative at your organization, contact a member of our Advisory Services Team at (800)777-1285.
This article was reprinted with permission from Ethics Today, a publication of The Ethics Resource Center, 1120 G Street, NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005
National Institute for Engineering
Box 41023 Lubbock, TX 79409-1023
Jimmy H. Smith, Ph.D., P.E. - Director
Last Update: 03/23/09
Webmaster EMail: email@example.com
[Top of Page]