The number of issues that pose ethical questions is growing, from money and contract negotiations to the use of emerging technologies, employment law, community matters and whistleblowing. Jon Herbert advises on the support and guidance available on the subject.

Professionals involved in the built environment are already juggling demands to reduce carbon emissions and waste, to procure sustainably while learning to work with advanced software, drones and robotics. Is bringing ethics into the equation too much to ask?

Environmental, social and community issues are now part of the evolving landscape of ethics in engineering even though corruption and bribery continue to pose problems, often in modern guises. Expecting charitable donations to be made as part of tendering is an example. Resisting may seem churlish; bad habits can slip into the culture very easily.

Discrimination, now high on the list, also illustrates how ethics are widening to the point where modern-day slavery and eventual lessons from the analysis of events like the Grenfell Tower fire in April 2017 are now natural parts of the fabric. Ethics, it is argued, can take legislation further forward if there is sufficient understanding of what is involved and how best to deal with it.

This is also why ethics is now a major curriculum component for trainee engineers: from the right and wrongs of the delicate subject of whistleblowing to questions on tax avoidance.

But difficult ethical questions can also pop up in everyday practical situations where expediency and good intention sometimes obscure the ethically “correct” answer. That said, in an age of transparency, nothing remains hidden for long.


A number of academic and professional organisations have defined what ethical standards should mean, how they can be implemented and their increased role in graduate training. The National Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied at the University of Leeds notes that engineers are often party to negotiations, manage other engineers, make important decisions, write reports, ensure safety, minimise risks and help protect the environment: elements requiring an understanding of ethics. Most employers want employees who understand the ethical dimensions of their decisions.

The Centre helps graduates to explain what it means to be professional and ethical, distinguish between legal and ethical issues, plus to understand the difference between empirical and non-empirical factors in engineering decision-making, as well as the significance of their judgments and how to show ethical considerations that justify their decisions.

Practical ethics toolkit

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) also has a Code of Ethics for members. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is particularly keen that engineers have access to the training needed to apply ethics wisely in the fast-changing world of civil engineering and construction and has defined the meaning of ethics carefully.

Ethics, it explains, is a professional cornerstone and key element of differentiation for professionals. Ethics is not simply about avoiding bad decisions but also choosing good ones. The sector’s contribution to society comes with an inherent duty to act ethically.

The ICE’s starting point is Rules of Professional Conduct covering safety, competence, the environment, integrity and public interest, with supporting advice on ethical conduct. However, the aim is for engineers to know how to do more than just the minimum needed to meet the basic rules.

Its response for engineers finding themselves in difficult waters is the Say No ethics toolkit. Accessed either by a webpage or app, this provides very practical guidance on potentially awkward and embarrassing issues, such as when to say no, how to say no and what to do when you can’t say no.

Designed to avoid situations that could lead to accusations of bribery, the toolkit logic makes it easy to click through the website, select a relevant situation and be guided by detailed answers to specific questions.

ICE also makes reference to sample scenarios developed by the Institute of Business Ethics that it suggests engineers should work through, asking themselves what they think they would do in those circumstances and then querying the following.

  • 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?

The final acid test is:

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

Each scenario includes a detailed background setting out every day but potentially complex scenes for corruption, the environment, health and safety, tendering, third parties, customers, community impact, whistleblowing, facilitation payments and supply chain management.

ICE suggests the following are considered for each scenario.

  • 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 judgment?

  • Have you ever been in a position where you had such a dilemma? What did you do? Would you make the same decision again?

A list of further reading material is also available.

Royal Academy of Engineering

The Academy has also taken a close interest in engineering ethics since 2003; its first engineering ethics conference was held in 2005 when its original statement of ethical principles was launched.

Working with the Engineering Council, it co-launched a revised Statement of Ethical Principles in 2017 to guide engineers and technicians. This now includes climate change and autonomous systems and is based on the principles of honesty, integrity, respect for life, law, the environment, public wellbeing, accuracy, leadership and good communication.

It has also developed a set of case studies from the experience of real engineers to show ethical principles working in practice; these are designed for engineers to work through examples and explore how ethics relate to their own working lives. In addition, the Academy has developed a number of tools and resources for engineering educators.

Whistling in more than the wind

In 2013, US computer professional Edward Snowden blew the whistle globally on surveillance activities. One aspect that has been emphasised since is that the complex mathematical algorithms involved were developed by highly skilled professional engineers who perhaps failed to question their full potential use. The alternative argument is that they were simply “doing their job”.

This is a highly subjective argument that can be applied to many other professional areas. Engineers, seen as the providers of infrastructure and the common good, may find similarly that it raises complex ethical questions and challenges their relationship with authority.

The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986, where vital components failed, is often quoted as a case study of whistleblowing, set organisational behaviour and the risks of “groupthink” in which individuals with specific knowledge find it hard to speak out against the prevailing view.

A basic dilemma for engineers is their duty to report possible risk that could result when an engineer's directions are not followed by the supply chain. The ethical consensus is that an engineer’s duty overrides that to a client and/or employer, even though he or she may be disciplined, or face having their career prospects damaged.

One of the lasting images of Grenfell is a poster saying, “Measures put in place to make Grenfell Tower look better. No measures put in place to keep residents safe”.


Modern day slavery is particularly relevant with the 11 April 2018 release of a new survey pointing to tens of thousands of people working within the construction industry without pay or contracts. Where the problem is not obvious, it can nevertheless exist through modern extended supply chains that are more difficult to monitor.


  • Ethics in engineering is a major issue. As such, it is curriculum subject on many graduate courses.

  • Ethical issues for people working in the built environment are not divorced from other contemporary topics, including sustainability, the growing impacts of new technology and social priorities.

  • Honesty and integrity are essential — however, there can be confusion where financial matters sometimes involve subtle forms of bribery and potential allegations of corruption.

  • Where contractors, engineers and procurement personnel feel awkward and isolated in negotiations and relationships, practical guides and help are now available online.

Last reviewed 8 May 2018