Likely causes of corporate unethical behavior


    It should not be a surprise to anyone that the business and professional environment in which structural engineering is practiced is becoming increasingly demanding. Mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing, globalization, technology, client expectations, professional liability, competition, and other factors have combined to create an atmosphere in which structural engineers often find themselves under increasing stress and strain.

    In this pressurized environment, engineering ethical standards sometimes run the risk of getting “bulldozed.” According to a global survey commissioned by the American Management Association (AMA)—which included responses from 1,121 managers and human resource experts—business objectives and deadlines are the leading factors most likely to cause unethical corporate behavior.

    The desires to further one’s career and to protect one’s livelihood are ranked second and third, respectively.

    Working in an environment with cynicism or diminished morale; improper training about, or ignorance that, acts are unethical; and the lack of consequences when caught are the next leading factors likely to cause unethical behavior. These factors are followed by the need to follow the boss’ orders, peer pressure/desire to be a team player, desire to steal from or harm the organization, and paradoxically, wanting to help the organization survive.

    “Laws and regulations are, and will remain, the most influential external drivers of corporate ethics, but legislation is no substitute for the presence of leaders who support and model ethical behavior,” according to Edward T. Reilly, president and CEO of the AMA.

    “Corporate leaders need to communicate ethical values throughout the organization, but they must do more than ‘talk the talk’ in order to establish and sustain an ethical culture.” What can structural engineering companies do to combat unethical behavior? According to the survey results, organizations can establish policies and processes for ensuring an ethical culture. These include leadership support and modeling of ethical behavior; consistent communications from all leaders; integrating ethics into goals, processes, and strategies; and making ethics a part of performance management systems and a part of the recruitment and employee selection process. The survey also found that the single most important ethical leadership behavior is keeping promises, followed by encouraging open communication, keeping employees informed, and supporting employees who uphold ethical standards. If an organization has leaders who simply don’t “walk the walk” when it comes to ethics, there’s little hope of maintaining a strong ethical culture.

    As for specific programs and practices, a corporate code of conduct is viewed as being most important. Such a code must reflect and reinforce the values and principles of an organization. Rounding out the top five programs are ethics training for all members of the organization, corporate social responsibility programs, ombudsman services, and help lines. In summary, employees need to have a code to set the ethics foundation, training to help people truly understand it, and programs that permit them to inquire about and report ethical violations.

    Big things matter, but so do smaller things. For example, a few years ago, New York City discovered that its subway crime rate had dropped, not because the city built more prisons or hired more transit police officers, but because the city aggressively addressed the longstanding subway graffiti problem.

    Removing graffiti and preventing its reoccurrence sent an important message both to the perpetrators and subway riders.

    Over the years, the National Society of Professional Engineers’ (NSPE) Board of Ethical Review has decided numerous cases in which structural engineers and their organizations have been faced with difficult choices, among them, whether to disclose information that may jeopardize their business prospects, whether to take credit for work not entirely performed by the structural engineer, or whether to provide or receive valuable gifts as part of a professional business relationship.

    For structural engineers and the companies and agencies that employs them, the message is clear. For professionals and their organizations to avoid ethical pitfalls, the internal engineering corporate culture needs to reflect the basic values embodied in the NSPE Code of Ethics and the NSPE Ethics in Employment Task Force Report. Those values need to be reflected not only in written policies and procedures, but also in your organization’s decisions and actions, from top to bottom.

    Arthur Schwartz serves as deputy executive director and general counsel for the National Society of Professional Engineers and writes two monthly columns in the organization’s PE magazine, one on ethics and the other on law. He can be reached at 1-703-684-2845, or via e-mail at Visit for more information on this or other ethical matters.