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. [Read more…]