Client first or truth first? A hot potato held by engineer

Engineer consultant Jean Smith is troubled over whether she should follow her client’s instruction to produce an environmental statement which includes no significant environmental problem for a new road tunnel project. Given that the approval of this project can fairly boost the economy and relief heavy traffic pressure, Jean is concerned that such a statement cannot fully represent the adverse effects and significant environmental problem may occur as the project precedes.

Yes, she should follow her client’s instruction

As an employee, it is Jean’s responsibility to provide a satisfactory service for her client. The main obligation of Jean is to serve the interest of her client and such a conduct can be found in professional ethics (code of conduct) like NSPE code of conduct. On the other hand, this action reflect her loyalty towards client as engineer also need to be loyal to their companies.

By thinking intuitively then there is an acceptable option for meeting the client’s expectation. This can be achieved by either being selective about the impact which can be classified as significant or changing the way of collecting and analyzing data. As long as no false data is produced, it will not commit fraud. Such a tailoring of report is a common practice among her competitors. As an engineer, Jean’s aim is to build up her reputation within the field and develop necessary skill and experience in order to have a promising career. The competition is intensive, why should her pass on her opportunity?

From a separatism perspective which is illustrated by tripartite model, engineers should apply the technical inputs, but all value decisions should be made by management and political organs for wider social consequences or concerns. ‘I must emphasize, I had my say, and I never take any management right to take the input of an engineer and then make a decision based upon that input….I have worked a lot of companies and I truly believed that there was no point in me doing anything further than I had already attempted to do’, Said Boisjoly, the engineer, after the disastrous case of Challenger. Individual therefore does not have to make decision in this situation since companies are in a better and stronger position to make moral decision.

The likeness of having significant environmental problem is not yet known. However the beneficial impacts it has for on the society is foreseeable. The approval of the road tunnel will be hugely beneficial for business in the areas. For instance, a plan of a tunnel linking Sheffield to Manchester has unveiled recently which can significantly boost the city’s economy and create jobs for people. The increase in connectivity, spread of innovation, are expected to help contributing government’s long-term economic plan. No guts, no glory.

To think in the box of utilitarianism, which selects the option that brings the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Jean get paid for work and secure her career. The construction company make profit from the project. Jobs are created for the people. Public enjoy the convenience and economic boost brought by the new road tunnel. Government earn credit for city planning. All main interests of stakeholders are well served.

No, she should not follow her client’s instruction

In accordance with engineering principles, Jean Smith is expected to be a trusted and respected engineer. Firstly, all professional codes include the obligation to practice one’s profession with integrity and honesty. With integrity and honesty, engineer must behave in an honest, faithful and truthful manner.

Secondly, based on the accuracy and rigour principle, it is Jean’s responsibility to act intelligently and faithfully in her work. A professional engineer should identify risks fully and present corresponding evidence without prejudice.  Therefore, Jean Smith should avoid misleading acts and misconduct in her work. Tailoring of environmental statement is clearly against this professional principle.

Thirdly, all engineers should bear social responsibility in their minds. The guidance from Royal Academy of engineering states that engineers should hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public. In this case, it is Jean’s responsibility to carry out her task so as to prevent avoidable danger to the public health and safety, and prevent avoidable adverse effects on the environment.

Furthermore, the responsible leadership principle indicates a privileged and trusted position of engineers in society, thus they must accurate and truthful in any report they produce in order to build up a positive exemplary role in the society. This can be combined with virtue theory in the case of Citicorp Centre. Engineer LeMessurier carried out an extra win-resistance test for the building to ensure the safety and a significant problem was found. Instead of hiding the issues, he informed all the parties and figured out a solution to improve the safety of the building. The way he acted can be regarded as an exemplary for Jean Smith. First, engineer should has courage to report the error even though not stating it would have been reprehensible. Second, engineers should also dedicate themselves to safety of the general public.

According to Kantian theory, the first formulation of its categorical imperative implies a universality principle. In this case, if tailoring of environmental statement becomes a universal law among all engineers, then simply no one would produce an accurate environmental statement in order to meet their client’s expectation. The outcome of this theory shows that this option is morally unacceptable.

If adverse impacts on environment are veiled in the statement and significant damaging occur, engineer is responsible for the immediate suffering of victims of environmental accidents. The damaging nature of constructing tunnel coupled with the negative impacts on environment fundamentally go against the freedom principle – individuals are free to pursue please as long as they do not cause harm to others by doing so. As an engineer, the decision to seek the financial and professional benefits by producing a desired statement to meet client’s expectation is morally wrong as it would be contributing to people’s suffering.

Group 29: Zhiyang Xie, Haokun Xue, Dingsheng Shi, Qianyun Zhu


13 thoughts on “Client first or truth first? A hot potato held by engineer

  1. I think the Jean should tell the truth if the program may do harm to the environment. The technology is developing and we may get some ways to solve the traffic problem but it takes at least hundreds of years for the environment to recover. It may even cause unrecoverable damage to the environment.


  2. Maybe you could change the way that such reports are normally produced. So it would be accepted by all parties. This should be done by introducing a methodology that was certified as an industry standard. Engineer is in a tough situation. The company is in a better position to make an ethical decision.


  3. A worthy investigation topic. Good illustrated opinion with academic literature. But what is your thought of this critical topic?


  4. I really like this article and it means some very good questions. This problem is often encountered for an engineer, and I think she should choose to honestly tell, it is the responsibility to a upright engineer’s. Environmental problem is vary big this day, i thinks the environment need be protected.


  5. Hi, I know this is common sense. But I think the results of your investigation is very important. If the finding shows that the effect towards the environment is significant and your client won’t let you make an accurate report. Should you go for the whistleblowing option? however, since the fact is unknown, it is pretty hard for the side that supports client first option. Anyway, good attempt.


  6. Good job! I have a point regarding the code of conduct used in the first section. Yes I would say an employee should be loyal to his/her company. But there are types of loyalty we mention here, if the loyalty is critical, which might cause an adverse environmental impact that cannot be recovered or cannot be outshined by other benefits. then there no point to show such a loyalty. your may lose your job but don’t risk someone’s life !


  7. Sometimes you need to be realistic. The world is in a mess. Just don’t get into trouble with people with power. Also in terms of environmental issue, many cities such as London, went trough a ‘pollution before treatment’ routine. Look what happened in London in 1952.


    1. 12000 died in that air pollution. Is that also a common routine for you?! This is an example warning us that do not make the same mistake again!


  8. I am definitely on the same side with people who say no that request. For exanple one of the watermelon-eating crowd named Small Ming says ” paper can’t hold fire!”, which immediately causes the deepest empathy of another person named steelpole zhao and he followed ” The conversation between Jean and her client must have been had under a window called East Window because people will know the truth as time goes”.


  9. We need to put our environment in the first priority! If significant damage happens, it is highly likely that Jean will be blamed for that! When the road ahead is really not worth the trip, will you still go forward? The answer is clearly not!!!


  10. If I am the citizen in that area. I will not feel happiness if the cost of bringing in the road tunnel is to critically harm the environment. The way to avoid this from the very beginning is to produce an objective, accurate environmental statement. If the company does not accept your choice, you either quit or inform the public.


  11. Your environmental statement will not only be read by your client, but also the government, the court and other parties. Your methodology of producing this environment report must be agreed by all parties. Therefore, I think that it is very difficult for the report produced by doing option 1, to be accepted by all the parties. What is worse is that they might find you committing fraud and you may trap yourself into a new trouble. So engineer should show the professionalism and make an accurate report. Don’t risk your whole career, this is just a little obstacle.


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