Civil engineering ethics toolkit - 'Say No'

The ICE 'Say No' Ethics Toolkit provides advice and guidance on how to make ethical decisions systematically.

ICE's Civil Engineering Ethics toolkit
ICE's Civil Engineering Ethics toolkit

About the Say No ethics toolkit

If you find yourself in a difficult situation and are unsure of the right thing to do, the ICE Say No toolkit can help.

It gives specific practical guidance on when to say no, how to say no and what do if you cannot say no. This is useful if the situation could lead to accusations of bribery.

Simply click through the website, select your situation and answer questions about it, and the Say No toolkit will tell you the right action to take.

Where can I get the Say No toolkit?

It is available as both a webpage and as an App, both in the Apple store and Google Play store.

What is Ethics?

Ethics is :

  1. a system of accepted beliefs that control behaviour
  2. the study of what is morally right or not

Ethics is a cornerstone of the civil engineering profession and a key element in differentiating us as professionals. Ethics isn’t just about avoiding bad decisions, but also about choosing good ones. The significant contribution that engineering makes to society invokes an inherent duty on us to act ethically.

There is a strong tradition of ethics in engineering. Institutions throughout the world oblige their members to demonstrate their commitment to ethical practice in various ways. For example, in the U.S.A. and Canada, professional engineers take an oath and wear a ring as a constant reminder of their moral, ethical and professional commitment to society. Equally, ICE obliges its members to adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct which defines the ethical standards to which they should abide.

Sample business ethics scenarios

Below you will find some sample scenarioes developed by the Institute of Business Ethics.

These are some examples scenarios. Go through them and ask yourself what you would do plus:

  • Would my actions be legal?
  • Do they satisfy professional codes of conduct?
  • Have I considered all stakeholders?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest?
  • How would my actions be perceived?

and the final acid test

  • How would you feel if your actions were printed on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper?
Topic: Corruption

Tuition Fees

Dave doesn’t know what to do.

He has just received a call from a contact at a major contractor asking Hoople Engineering to negotiate an engineering contact for a metro concession. It’s great news for Dave, as he needs another contract to make his target for the year, and get his promotion. He really needs his promotion as his son is about to leave school and needs help with tuition fees for university.

The contractor is well respected and ordinarily Dave would have no qualms in going ahead. However, the client is a city administration which has a bad reputation. There are strong rumours that they take bribes for contracts. In fact, Hoople has bid and lost so many times on major projects that they no longer tender for them.

The contractor has had a protracted and much-reported bidding process to win the metro concession, but Dave still has his doubts. But he also needs the contract.

What should Dave do?

Topic: The environment

Save our orchards

Janet is Director of the Development Department which purchases land for potential development by Wessex Heat & Light. It is part of her role to view sites which WHL are interested in purchasing as part of their commitment to sustainable energy, and she is in the final stages of purchasing a major site in the Highlands of Scotland. Surveys of the area have been carried out, including an Environmental Impact Assessment. The site looks to be just what WHL are looking for their Wind Farm which they hope to have up and running in five years time. The Wind Farm is the CEO’s pet project; he has made several public speeches on the subject and given his word that this would be implemented within the timeframe.

It has been difficult to find a site which fits the remit, but this land, being sold by the local council, is ideal. The council are also happy, because as part of the planning gain, WHL have agreed to build new roads into the nearest town, and the area is in dire need of jobs.

Janet travels up to Scotland to meet with the vendors, take one more look at the site and sign the contracts. She arrives early, and decides to take a wander round the site. However, she is horrified to find that police are attempting to disperse 200 protestors, who are angrily waving placards and chanting slogans. Janet sees the councillor who she has been dealing with, and he comes over to speak to her. It is clear from the expression on his face that he wasn’t expecting to see her quite this early.

“I’m sorry about all this, Janet,” he says. “Some crusty types have got their dreadlocks in a twist about the development. It’s nothing to worry about. You’d think they’d be happy about wind energy wouldn’t you?” he snorts.

“What’s that they’re saying about a rare orchid?” she asks the councillor.

“Oh, some rubbish that they’ve dreamt up.” He looks at Janet. “There was nothing in the survey about any rare plants now was there?”

He’s right, but Janet can’t help feeling uneasy. The company would not like the adverse publicity if a rare orchid was found to be on the site. On the other hand, they would have bad publicity if they failed to deliver their promises for the Wind Farm.

What should Janet do?

Topic: Health and safety

The red lights are flashing!

Sam, a supervisor at a local processing plant, was having a bad day. The area manager had just called him to ask him why the plant wasn’t reaching its target of working to full capacity.

“You better start improving your output,” he said, “because Head Office is looking to close down unproductive plants and yours is definitely on the list. Someone’s coming from Head Office today to have a look round.”

Then his internal line rang. It was the Bob, the Safety Officer reporting that safety warning lights have been coming on intermittently. “The only way to investigate why this is happening is to shut down the production line.”

“Again?” asked Sam. The warning lights had been tripped a couple of times recently for no apparent reason. “How long will we have to shut down for?”

“Shouldn’t take longer than 24 hours,” said Bob. “Best to be safe than sorry though of course, it could just be a dodgy wire again. We will have to check all the connections.”

Sam knows that the warning lights indicate that there is a risk of injury to the operatives. But it always been ok before and if someone from Head Office comes and sees the plant at a standstill, everyone’s jobs are going to be on the line.

What should Sam do?

Topic: Tendering

Delivery dates

Sanjiv is business development manager at the regional office Prospex, a company which supplies materials to the building sector. A new storage centre is being proposed at a local business park, and Sanjiv know that they have to win the contract for supplying high-density translucent cladding. The regional office is well behind target on their sales budget and there are rumours that they will be merged with the more successful office further North and redundancies will follow.

The tender was due in at the end of the day, and it was considered to have a good chance on price but Sanjiv knew that the delivery dates were at least three weeks too long. This was mainly because a major ingredient in the production process had to come from a firm in Eastern Europe which was having problems. Sanjiv discussed this with Jim, the head of the regional office.

“There are bound to be delays on the construction site. I’m sure we could square the main contractor if the cladding delivery turned out to be late.”

“But our reputation in the trade would be on the line if we don’t deliver on time,” said Sanjiv. “Our product is much better than those of competitors and it should be sold on this basis.”

“It’s a nice idea, Sanjiv, but do you think that our competitors will be giving realistic delivery dates?” said Jim. “You know we need this job. Everyone changes their delivery dates, it’s practically expected. And like you say, our product is the best.”

What are Sanjiv’s options?

Topic: Third parties

No competition

Boris is senior project manager at Hoople Engineering. The company have been invited to bid for a package of work by Jean-Pierre, a local consultant for which Boris has worked before. He arranges a meeting to find out what the scope of services might be.

“How’s business?” Boris asks.

“Excellent!” says Jean-Pierre “I have many Government contracts. No competition - the Government have acknowledged my unique skills! But let’s talk business!”

They talk together about commercial terms, and then Jean-Pierre says. “I will deduct 10% from Hoople’s fee to cover administration. You should look at it as a way of showing appreciation for obtaining work without competition from me.”

What should Boris do?

Topic: Customers

Low emissions

You have been offered a large contract for a specially treated product from a poor government in the developing world. You know that the government has just received a large loan from the World Bank to improve its infrastructure and public transport.

The specially treated product produces very low emissions and is usually used by delicate engineering projects and scientific experimental devices. It is four times more expensive than the product usually used for public transport. The contract – for ten years’ supply - will give you a much needed financial boost.

But you are unsure as to whether this expensive product is really suitable for the government’s needs. You question the contract manager, but he insists that the government feel it is important to produce low emissions. You are not sure that he has fully understood the technical aspects of the order.

What do you do?

Topic: Community impact


The Company has entered into a lease with the government of Exia for a land and sea area to develop exploration. About 5,000 residents will be affected, mostly farmers and fishermen. Local law makes it the responsibility of the government to take charge of relocating the local population.

The government’s planned relocation process is to inform the affected residents and move them to a designated area at a given time. There would be no consultation. You are also aware that human rights groups accuse the country of abusing human rights.

If the relocation goes ahead as planned you fear you will be accused of not executing the project to international standards. The potential damages are manifold: delay of the project schedule due to legal wrangles and damage to your company’s reputation. You fear the impact for the Company if the resettlement goes ahead as planned.

What do you do?

Topic: Whistle blowing - facilitation payments

Little brown envelope

Tara has been working for some months on a major project for Hoople Engineering. Everything has been going well until the representative she was dealing with left and was replaced by Bob. Previously, all invoices were approved in plenty of time, but since Bob took over, nothing has been approved. Prompt invoice approval by clients is one of the performance measures used to calculate Tara’s bonus at her appraisal, so after some months this is really starting to hit her in a personal way.

Tara is chatting to another supplier and bemoans Bob’s lack of organisation.

“That’s not disorganisation,” the supplier says. “I heard that you can usually get your invoice cleared with a little brown envelope into Bob’s hands. If you know what I mean.”

What should Tara do?

Topic: Supply chain management

Power supply

Kim has been given the task of ensuring that all Zorophlain’s factories abroad comply with International Labour Standards. On the whole, most of the factories seem to be working well and complying with local laws; standards are higher than she expected and she is particularly impressed with the improvements which one factory has made in a short space of time.

She tells the manager how impressed she is, especially as she recalled that last time he said the improvements couldn’t be done.

“Thank you,” he says. “We managed to find a way to overcome some of the problems we were having with the power supply and that has contributed enormously to staff safety.”

Kim congratulates him again, but back at her hotel, she wishes she had pressed him further about what he had meant. She has a drink at the hotel bar and meets a counter-part of hers from another company, whom she vaguely knows from a recent supply chain conference they attended.

“I’ve had a terrible day,” says Melanie, ordering a drink. “Had to recommend we pull out of one of our supplier’s factories, because we just couldn’t stamp out the bribery that went on.” Melanie takes a sip. “We gave them innumerable warnings, the Company just won’t tolerate even low-level facilitation payments.”

Kim commiserates with Melanie. “It’s never easy pulling out of a factory.”

“Tell me about it! And it’s hardly the factory owner’s fault; they were just trying to keep their worker’s safe, you know what the electricity supply is like out here, and now a whole community has lost a source of income. Do you know they were shelling out a fortune every month just to guarantee they had a regular power supply?”

Is that what the manager had meant when he spoke to Kim? She knows that Zorophlain has strict policies on bribery and corruption, including facilitation payments; but she is also aware how vital the factory is to the income of the community.

What are Kim’s options?


Talking points

It is not just the project manager’s responsibility to ensure ethical practice. It is our duty to inform others of good ethical practice. For any scenario you can ask

  • What are the ethical issues?
  • What are the options?
  • Where do the duties lie?
  • What will be the impact of the decision? On whom?
  • Are there any factors to affect your judgement?
  • Have you ever been in a position where you had such a dilemma? What did you do? Would you make the same decision again?

What can I do?

Why not discuss the issues with colleagues in project meetings with contributions from staff at all levels?

Why not organise a workshop in your company to help promote awareness of ethical issues by debating case studies?

ICE’s Six Rules of Professional Conduct are relevant to non-ICE members since we work in a multi-disciplinary environment. Why not share best practice by giving a lunchtime presentation on ethical practice and the ICE Code of Professional Conduct?

Further Reading

The resources below will help you to better understand the principles of ethics in engineering:

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