Skip to content
Civil Engineer blog

Do we always know how to make ethical decisions in the workplace?

28 November 2023

Lauren Luck, member of the ICE Ethics Committee, introduces and explains the importance of the ICE Advice on Ethical Conduct.

Do we always know how to make ethical decisions in the workplace?
It’s the duty of ICE members to behave ethically, no matter what the dilemma might be. Image credit: Shutterstock

Do you always make ethical decisions? How do you hold yourself and your colleagues accountable?

The construction industry is built on difficult decisions which often require us to balance needs, priorities and choices. Sometimes the right decision may seem obvious but other times, it might feel less clear.

A simple example that most engineers will make is material selection:

  • How often have we asked ourselves if a cheaper material will perform to the specification we need as engineers?
  • Can we improve safety through material choice or reduce the impact on the environment?
  • Is there a price to pay either through budget or profit by choosing differently?
  • Is a new material needed at all, or could a repaired or recycled material work?

We will of course make our decision based on the specific needs of our projects, but have we satisfied our own ethical checks in making that decision?

To ask in a different way, have we made the right decision?

Ethical dilemmas that engineers face

To explore this issue the ICE recently hosted a strategy session on ethical dilemmas engineers may face.

During the session, the panel of speakers delved into the recently revised advice on ethical conduct. They spoke about modern dilemmas facing civil engineers and explored frameworks for resolving ethical conflicts.

But do we, as a membership, always understand the complexity of ethical decisions in the workplace?

Do we hold a mirror to ourselves and our decision making enough?

We only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on our screens to see examples of questionable engineering judgements compounded by poor regulation and bad decision making.

So what guidance is there to help minimise these issues and help us make the right decisions at the right time? How can we implement ethical solutions?

The ICE has published two documents which might help the engineers of today in the right direction:

  1. ICE Code of Professional Conduct
  2. ICE Advice on Ethical Conduct

These two documents are different yet complimentary.

Professional conduct

The first introduces the Rules of Professional Conduct, by which every ICE member must stick to.

This document sets down the six basic standards that engineers must base their professional behaviours on.

It also gives some advice in plain language to aid in the interpretation and application of those rules.

Ethical conduct

The Advice on Ethical Conduct doesn’t provide any rules.

Rather, it prompts the engineer to continue in their questioning of ethics in the workplace.

It provides advice and highlights other resources available to the reader when considering ethics in a professional setting.

The advice has been written to recognise that it might not always be easy to do the right thing, but it's the duty of engineers to behave ethically and honourably.

Updated advice for our modern world

Eagle-eyed readers, or those who are interested in version control, will spot that the ICE Advice on Ethical Conduct was first published back in 2004.

Eight years passed before the second revision and a further 11 years before the third revision in October 2023.

So, what has changed?

The Ethics Committee would likely suggest a lot.

With an ever growing international and increasingly dynamic nature, ICE membership continues to evolve.

The latest revision recognises this shift and has been updated to reflect this while maintaining key messages and references to standards.

The advice also strengthens the relationship between the ICE and other engineering bodies such as the Engineering Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Society of Construction Law.

In doing this, the advice can promote a ‘wider picture’ of ethics and can draw on a vast array of experience and expertise.

Through the lens of climate change

The drafting committee has included some additional information on sustainability and preventing disasters.

Our ICE President, Professor Anusha Shah, has highlighted to ICE members the importance of tackling the climate emergency.

The 2023 advice on ethical conduct calls on the reader to consider, more than ever before, the lasting legacy of their work on communities, environment and the world around us.

Aware of its limitations

But even with the additional advice, the Ethics Committee recognises the limitations of the document.

To develop a readable document, the committee chose to provide a bibliography and links to further reading.

By signposting readers to these works, the committee has given freedom to the reader to explore, question and upskill in ethical decision-making.

They have also recognised that readers may want to provide feedback or engage with the committee directly, as such contact details have been provided.

The Ethics Committee has committed to regular review of the document to address topical issues and critically review content as language and workplace expectations change over time.

To do the right thing

Of course, the main message hasn’t been changed: it’s the duty of ICE members to behave ethically.

No matter what the example or dilemma may be, the advice on ethical conduct can always be summarised as the duty to behave honourably and ‘to do the right thing’.

By promoting our members to be curious and to pursue honesty and fairness, we promote a better world for all.

ICE Advice on Ethical Conduct

I would urge all readers to engage with the latest Advice on Ethical Conduct.

Read the document, follow the links, question your own workplace decisions and challenge those around you to do the same.

Engineers have the ability to shape the world around them – let’s make sure that world is built on ethical decisions and for the benefit of all.

Read the advice
  • Lauren Luck, regional engineer at John Sisk and Son Ltd