Who is responsible for driving ethics in engineering?

In the last of our 2022 debates at the House of Lords, Baroness Brown of Cambridge hosted GoodCorporation and the Royal Academy of Engineering (the Academy), together with representatives from across the UK engineering sector, to consider the challenges of managing ethics in engineering. 

Professor David Bogle, President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (iChemE) and Pro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School at University College London, and a fellow of the Academy, opened the debate by proffering that while engineering is one of the UK’s most trusted professions, concerns about Grenfell Tower, Volkswagen’s ‘dieselgate’ scandal and the Boeing 737 Max tragedies could point to a case of benign neglect. 

The ethical choices engineers make can have considerable impacts. Ethics must be further embedded with engineers and technicians encouraged to ‘think ethics before action’. 

David highlighted the following steps that are being taken, but questioned whether they are sufficient.

  • A focus on individual responsibility: The profession’s Statement of Ethical Principles and Professional Engineering Institutions’ (PEI) codes are focused on individual responsibility by registrants of PEIs. However, the “missing three million” non-registrants are free to practice without any commitment or obligation to follow the industry’s own codes  
  • Corporate responsibility: Companies are responsible for their business and their employees. But practice is variable and dependent on management culture and, often, the resources available to the organisation
  • Regulation: The profession could be regulated as is the case with medicine or accountancy. Clarification of who has responsibility for ethical misconduct is necessary when identifying where to target regulation and training – the individual? a collective? an organisation or company?
  • Education: The importance of ethical values needs also to be evident in engineering education. University and college staff must be sufficiently knowledgeable about ethics, and ethics should be embedded throughout the course – not confined to occasional lectures.

He also noted there is evidence many engineers feel “dissuaded” from raising concerns about ethics in the workplace, and satisfactory routes for whistleblowing in engineering are essential.

David concluded by acknowledging that transparency breeds trust and could help to attract young people who wish to join an ethical profession. 

Key themes from the debate

  • Large firms vs. SMEs: Large corporations tend to have more sophisticated ethics-focused systems, practices and communications. SMEs and start-ups, on the other hand, often struggle to redirect vital resources from essential business processes. SMEs also do not have the same influence on the supply chain as large corporations, and in fact, report they are often asked to compromise their ethical values at the behest of larger organisations.
  • Ethics lags safety: The culture of safety is well-embedded throughout UK engineering. Organisations are clear there is no room for complacency in meeting safety standards. Could ethics follow a similar structure through the development of an overarching ethical framework against which companies can measure themselves? This could establish a clear baseline at which companies must perform and give society the right to demand more from engineering companies who miss the mark. 
  • Who’s driving the change? Whilst developments have been made in areas such as ESG and diversity and inclusion, the question remains whether the engineering sector is advancing these changes or instead being pulled by societal change. With its own unique set of risks, it is important that engineering is actively driving good ethical practice. 
  • Attracting young people: The younger generation is collectively calling for organisations to demonstrate their commitment to ethical behaviour and young people choosing a first job aspire to work for companies with an ethical stance. To remain competitive, UK engineering must be shown to demonstrate ethical practice. 
  • More than tone from the top: Having leaders who champion ethical culture and raise the profile of ethics issues is important; however, to cultivate a positive ethical culture, organisations must promote good behaviours amongst all employees and tackle low-level ethical non-compliance. The manager is a vital role and companies must ensure they are equipped to coach and inform others about these issues. 
  • Tailor ethics communications: Organisations must communicate ethical principles and practices in order to engage and educate. The workforce is not a homogenous group and different communication styles will suit different stakeholders in the organisation. For example, engineers are prone to using technical language and communication and training should be adapted as such. 
  • Relevant and engaging CPD: To effectively train and communicate on ethics issues, the industry must provide relevant CPD. Best practice for ethics training is dilemma-based learning, not just on headline-worthy scandals, but also on low-level ethical misconduct issues. 

The GoodCorporation view: This debate follows GoodCorporation’s review of ethics in UK engineering which was conducted earlier this year on behalf of the Academy. While our findings are expected to be released in early 2023, many of the themes raised in this discussion are reflected in the outcomes of our review. 

The question we sought to explore through this debate was, “Who is responsible for driving ethics in engineering?” In our view, the answer is clear. A sustained and coordinated collective effort by all UK stakeholders in engineering – the engineering profession, employers, trade and industry bodies, regulators, investors and engineering educators – is necessary for the sector to embed an absolute culture of ethics in UK engineering. The Engineering Ethics Reference Group (EERG), which is comprised of representatives from the Academy and the Engineering Council, and chaired by our speaker, David Bogle, is making progress toward outlining an action plan to deliver a more coordinated ethics agenda within the sector. But such an endeavour will take time.

Companies can begin by getting their own houses in order. Updating codes of conduct and supplier codes of conduct and examining whistleblowing and speak up procedures is a good starting point. The EU Whistleblowing Directive has added urgency to the latter by requiring companies with more than 50 workers to have well-functioning reporting mechanisms in place. There are also new rules on human rights and environmental due diligence coming into play in Europe which will affect engineering companies with operations abroad.  

Companies may also wish to evaluate their ethics and compliance training programmes for 2023 and ensure they reflect role-specific expectations and relevant dilemmas, relating not just to blatant forms of abuse and corruption but also to lower-level ethical misconduct which can heighten the ethical risk profile of organisations.  

These are entry points for establishing a good ethical culture – establishing effective compliance processes and practices must follow. But the new year offers an opportunity for organisations to re-set their priorities and demonstrate to employees, investors and other stakeholders that doing business ethically is the way forward.