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Engineering Ethics (Accepting Gifts and Amenities)

Updated on July 6, 2016


Engineering code of ethics are rules and basic guides that govern the professional practice and impose obligations to the engineer. They ensure acceptable professional conduct with regards to the society, employers, clients, colleagues and the engineering profession. Engineering is a vital profession, whose work output impacts a large fraction of the population. Consequently, the engineers are required to perform their duties honestly and impartially to safeguard the welfare of the public, their health, and safety.

Accepting gifts and amenities during the performance of engineering duties amounts to bribery and is a violation of these engineering rules, the fifth of which states that Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts. Moreover, it eventually leads to a conflict of interest. For example, Company A specializes in the manufacture of drilling equipment that is used in the mining and construction sectors. It offered gifts, in the form of workers’ attire, to an engineering firm, Company B, undertaking a particular construction project. During the construction, Company B advertises the awarding of a tender for the supply of new drilling equipment to replace the old equipment it has been using. As a result, Company A forwards a bid to have the tender awarded to it. This is a conflict of interest. It could hamper the decision making by Company B on the best equipment present in the market.

Accepting gifts is unethical


Cases of Accepting Gifts and Amenities

There are many cases of the code of ethics violations that have led to the loss of lives and money that had been invested in the development of the project. Such cases include the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, whose suspended walkways collapsed in 1981, killing 114 people and injuring 200 others. The 1986 Chernobyl Plant disaster, in Ukraine, where a reactor exploded, the fall of the Cypress Street Viaduct in 1989 as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake. It claimed 35 lives. The above examples were in an aftermath of the negligence of the engineers to adhere to the first rule of the code of ethics. It states that they should hold paramount the safety, welfare and health of the public.

The collapse of the L'Ambiance Plaza, a 16- story residential project in Bridgeport Connecticut, however, was as a result of a combination of flaws and disregard for different codes of ethics. It occurred on April 23, 1987, killing 28 construction workers since it was still under construction. Different investigations were carried out to establish the causes of the collapse, and although most were not concluded as a result of a general settlement, several deficiencies in the project stood out. The structure was to have three parking levels and 13 apartment levels, divided into two towers that were separated by a central elevator lobby. According to the contract documents for the project, there was a structural engineer but whose job was limited, contrary to conventional engineering projects. Although the building's architect consulted the structural engineering firm, important architectural details and requirements were left out since this was part of the contractor’s job description.

The structural design responsibilities and consequent construction of the floors (flat plate floors) and their reinforcements were given to the contractor. As a result, the General Contractor subcontracted such responsibilities to other Contractors, Subcontractors A, B, and C. As a result; there were different designs for various parts of the structure. Only shop drawings done by Subcontractor B were found to be detailed, containing all the required information. Moreover, only the contract designs were reviewed by a professional engineer while the contractor's plans were left not discussed. Also, the engineer-on-record did not observe construction on a regular basis.

The engineering flaws mentioned above amount to negligence by the engineer-on-record. This is a contravention of the NSPE rules of practice, section 1b that states that "engineers shall only approve engineering documents that are in conformance with applicable standards." The contractor also contravened the rules of practice by performing the work of an engineer under section 2a. It states that engineers shall only take assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specified technical field.

The disaster was as a result of design flaws. They included: overstressed concrete slabs and steel lifting angles (while the slab was being lifted) and unreliable, temporary slab connections the assured frame stability. To avert this, the contractor would have taken several courses of action. He would have subcontracted a professional engineer to conduct the designs since the contract document bound him to provide the floor and consequent lifting mechanism designs. The engineer-on-record would not have only stamped the subcontractor’s plans and left out the General Contractor’s designs and should have visited the site always to ensure that the construction was done as per the engineering standards.

The NSPE code of ethics subsection 5b states that Engineers shall not accept, solicit or give bribes or gifts that would influence the award of a contract or enable them secure work. Moreover, it states that they should not pay commissions or brokerage fees unless to their employees or marketing agents. However, there are cases during the engineering practice that do not necessarily amount to giving or accepting bribes and gifts while there are others that amount to bribery.

Jane is the project engineer on a project involving the assembly of wind turbines whose parts are subcontracted from different manufacturers. In the run-up towards the start of the project, Jane had conducted several tests using different turbines from different companies. She came up with the best combination of equipment from the various manufacturers including the rotor, blade, and generator. She, therefore, picked the generator from Company X, leaving those from companies Y and Z which had a conversion rate and efficiency lower than those for the generator from Company X. After the installation of the turbines, the assistant vice president in charge of sales, from Company X, approached her, and offered her a superbike. Jane is a motorbike enthusiast and had for a long planned to buy herself a superbike. She accepts this gift that does not necessarily qualify as a bribe since the project is already complete.

However, in the following scenario, the gift offered to her would amount to a bribe if she accepts it. During the period she was conducting her tests, before the installation (but with Jane having come to the conclusion that generators from Company X were the best), an official from Company Z approached her. He offered to sponsor her for a fully paid trip in time to an upcoming Moto GP in Abu Dhabi if she recommended generators from his company to be used for the turbines. This would be a bribe since Jane already knows the best generators. Accepting the gift would have Jane breaking the code of ethics of professional obligation, 1, that states that engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

If Jane accepted the gift and recommended generators from Company Z, she would be violating the welfare of the public. This is because substandard parts would break down quickly and faster than good efficient parts. The households dependent on the wind turbines for electricity would, therefore, be left in darkness thereby leading them to move to alternative sources of energy that are more expensive. Also, if the loss of power affects industries, the operating costs for the factories would increase, and the cost would consequently trickle down to the consumers. The results of Jane's actions and dishonesty would have a ripple effect. The generators would, therefore, require replacement at some point in the future, and this would cost the government and funding institutions more money, which would have been used elsewhere.


As stated earlier, engineering works have a great impact on the society and affect different sectors of the economy. If they are constructed in a way that safeguards the safety and welfare of the public, they lead to a positive growth of the macroeconomics of a town and country in general. For example, roads, railways, and airports are engineering works that enable transportation that promote importation and exportation of goods thus promoting the economy. As a result, engineers should strive to abide by the codes of ethics.


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