While performing our various functions as civil engineers, it is always interesting to examine the reasons and motivations for our actions. As a group, we come from every background imaginable and represent cultures from around the globe. Nevertheless, as practicing engineers, we all are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Even so, every individual is bound by their own personal morals and the culture of the particular firm for which they may be employed. When an individual’s personal moral code is in conflict with the firm’s, what is the resolution?
From an objective ethical standpoint, if an individual’s morals are generally in conformance with the industry’s, then there is no "right" answer when determining what set of principles takes precedence. However, we know that, ultimately, the employer’s policies are generally the ones that hold sway. In a perfect world, we can imagine that individuals and employers would seek out those whose values closely matched their own. But the reality is, of course, that we all must make compromises to some degree, and those compromises usually involve our personal ethics. In other industries, the term is "selling out" or another, perhaps more colorful description. In engineering, however, it is presumed that we all conform to ethical codes that are similar enough that such compromises are fairly minimal.
There are many cases, though, that illustrate that individuals are often faced with ethical dilemmas that are not solved with simple conformance to company policy or culture. Luckily, when there are questions of legality, confidentiality, or safety, the engineer can usually be counted on to make the appropriate decisions.
What about issues of more philosophical topics, such as the environment, affordable housing, or sustainability? If employees feel uncomfortable with their employer’s contribution to urban sprawl, are they obligated to act or recommend alternatives to the client, even at the risk of losing the job? If there is a fundamental disagreement about whether or not to work on a particular project, how much influence should one individual’s opinion have, as opposed to the strategy of the firm and the decisions of its leaders?
These are ethical questions that require the judgment of management and the individuals involved to reach some equitable solution. The decisions will be based on the relative perceived benefits to the firm, the public, the clients, the employees, and society in general, and each will be a unique case. It is difficult to "do the right thing" when there is no clear "wrong." Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of professional codes of ethics: not only do they prohibit things that are unethical (as typical laws and regulations do), but they define and promote specific positive actions that should be undertaken to help ensure ethical behavior. It is up to the individual to decide whether a particular action is ethical under the circumstances.
With this in mind, how might we answer the question of balancing the moral codes of the employee and employer? In general, it will be the individual’s right and obligation to point out any actions that may have questionable ethical consequences. Any involvement with a client or the public should also allow for the professional to educate and provide an ethical framework for the project, within reason.
On the other hand, as a professional, one also has a responsibility to the employer. If the firm’s strategy dictates that a particular project will be beneficial in the long run to the success of the business and the employees, then the individual is obligated to act accordingly. The employee should never feel trapped in a workplace that violates personal ethics, but should also recognize that the firm is within its rights to act as it sees fit to achieve success. The organization is, after all, simply a collection of individuals and their respective experiences. One of the hardest duties as a leader is demonstrating that compromise is possible and necessary to maintain a coherent effort toward the greater good.