Engineering Ethics: How to Protect Your Engineering License

By Lewis Tesser and Randall Tesser

Bad things happen to good engineers.  Each year, some well-intentioned professional engineers cross over the misconduct threshold, and many, many more are the subject of disciplinary investigations even though they have not committed an ethical violation.  Therefore, it is worth discussing the factors triggering disciplinary investigations and the circumstances frequently attending disciplinary violations.  Whether or not misconduct has been committed, avoiding even the appearance of ethical pitfalls will save you time, money and stress, keep your clients satisfied, and safeguard your license.

Communication, Communication, Communication

In any profession, the vast majority of complaints emanate from unsatisfied clients.[1] The remedy is apparent; keep the customer satisfied. The best way to do this is to maintain good communication. Often, timely and honest communication is the single easiest and greatest step that any professional can take to reduce the likelihood of receiving complaints. What is involved?

Promptly return phone calls and e-mails. Whether you are working directly for a client, are working through a contractor or are part of an organization, whoever your point person is, keep them informed. When clients do not hear from you—even if you are hard at work—they may believe that their project is not important to you. Of course, you do not have to respond to each and every call ten times a day. The key is to communicate. Establish a policy regarding response time, and stick to it. If you are unable to respond, make sure to explain the reason for the unavailability and make a realistic promise as to when the call will be returned.

Document your work. Keep contemporaneous notes of relevant conversations, important events, time devoted and expenses incurred. Maintain records in a way that you can easily retrieve them. With good recordkeeping, you can show your clients all the hard work that you put into their projects. This will be especially useful if a bill is higher than usual.

Speaking of bills, clients should never be surprised. You may feel awkward having spent more time than expected on a project. That is the time to communicate with the client (or your company). Let them know ahead of time if you expect a bill to be high, and explain why the bill is higher than usual (using your well documented records). Consider sending out your bills frequently and regularly so they are not stuck with one big number at the end.

Be Wary of Ethical Grey Areas

            While being a licensed professional involves certain privileges, it also limits the scope of your practice. There are certain activities that are prohibited for professional engineers to take part in, either because they are not the work of a professional engineer, or because they pose a conflict of interest. For example, in some states an engineer may not work for, or with, the government while they are being regulated as a professional. In addition, professional engineers often may not perform work where they have an undisclosed financial interest in a project.[2]

On that note, be aware of local laws and regulations. Different states, counties and municipalities impose different requirements on the practice of engineering. Regardless of where your license was issued, violating local rules and regulations can put your license in jeopardy. A little bit of research goes a long way when working in new or unfamiliar localities.

            Not everyone who works atan engineering firm is licensed, and not every engineer works for a company that can perform—and advertise—engineering services. Make sure that your coworkers, your employees, and your company are not performing services that they are not legally permitted to. This varies from state to state, but red flags might be waving if an unlicensed employee’s work is not supervised, or if the owner of an engineering firm is not licensed.

Some states require professional engineers to report other engineers who violate ethical rules.[3] You might be reluctant to report your fellow engineers—it is uncomfortable and you don’t want to be the bad guy—but it is your responsibility to carry out the obligations of your license. Be aware of your state’s reporting requirements, if any, and protect your license first.

Take Care of Yourself

No one wakes up in the morning, takes a sip of coffee, and thinks, “I’m going to commit professional malpractice today!” Good people, good engineers do make mistakes, and it is usually when they are at their most stressed. When work starts to pile up, when money is tight, when you are having problems at home, or when you are fighting an illness, it becomes easier and easier to cut corners, neglect duties, and slip up.

When stress is building, the only way to protect your license is to protect yourself. Find time to relax and do what you love. Read a book, work out, go for a hike, play music, spend time with friends. Whatever your thing is, do it! If you find that your stress is simply unmanageable, do not be afraid to seek professional help.

Take Care of Each Other

Engineering is more than just your job, it is your profession. You have the benefit of relying on your professional community for support. Join and participate in an engineering association or club, and look out for your friends. Sometimes it is easier to spot problems from the outside. If you notice a colleague making mistakes, compromising their ethics, or if something seems off, reach out to them. Support each other as engineers, and you could save each others’ careers.

[1] In the case of New York Professional Engineers, anyone may file a complaint with the NY Education Department’s Office of the Professions, or with New York City by dialing 311.

[2] Most, but not all, of the professional obligations on P.E.’s imposed by New York law can be found in New York Education Law § 6509, 8 NYCRR 29.1 and 8 NYCRR 29.3 (included, in part, at the end of the article). The National Society of Professional Engineers also provides a Code of Ethics for Engineers which, while not legally binding, is a good indication of professional norms and comports with many states’ legal obligations.

[3] In New York, it is considered unprofessional conduct to be “associated in a professional capacity with any project or practice known to the licensee to be fraudulent or dishonest in character, or not reporting such fraudulence or dishonesty to the [New York State] Education Department.” 8 NYCRR 29.3(a)(1).

Lewis Tesser is a partner at Tesser, Ryan &Rochman, LLP, where he represents the interests of professionals in business, licensing, ethics, and more. He is a past president of the New York County Lawyers’ Association and the founder of its Ethics Institute. Randall Tesser is an associate at Tesser, Ryan &Rochman, LLP.

Note: NYSSPE facilitates posting on this blog, but the views and accounts expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not the views or accounts of NYSSPE, its officers or directors whose views and accounts may or may not be similar or identical. NYSSPE, its officers and directors do not express any opinion regarding any product or service by virtue of reference to such product or service in this blog.


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