The importance of the engineering code of ethics

Engineering is an exciting field to be in. It attracts those who are both technically minded and highly creative. The field needs those who are not afraid to experiment and can think outside the box as they solve the problems and challenges any engineering project raises, coming up with solutions that are effective and efficient. However, the equipment and materials used in engineering come with many potential dangers, and while engineering needs those who can think creatively, the history of engineering includes many accidents, some of which could have been avoided. In addition to being technically and creatively minded, engineers also need to have a good understanding of the code of ethics and how it relates to their project. This allows them to develop their creative and technical solutions to engineering challenges within a safe framework.

A code for leaders

While all engineers should have a good understanding of the code of ethics, it becomes of vital importance for those in engineering management. Engineering managers will have to juggle many different factors in their engineering projects. They will need to decide how the project runs, its budgets, when and where different members of the team are used, source the materials required and set a time scale, to name just a few of their tasks. When the engineering code of ethics underpins all their decisions, they can reduce the likelihood of accidents and help bring their project to a conclusion efficiently and effectively.

If you are aspiring to a leadership role in engineering, there are many areas to learn and skills to master. While your existing engineering experience will likely have helped prepare you for the additional responsibilities, gaining a qualification such as a Master’s degree will ensure you are thoroughly prepared in all areas and will look impressive on a resume.

While you can attend a Master’s course at many universities across the country, this may not fit in with your existing work commitments. For many, taking time off work to study is not financially viable. A good option for working professionals is an online degree. Online degrees now rival the quality that anything their physical counterparts can offer and are delivered by top universities. Those looking for courses in engineering management are likely to come across Kettering University Online. Their online Master of Engineering Management includes seven core courses to provide you with a thorough grounding in engineering management, including a course on ethics and the practice of engineering with case studies to help students thoroughly understand the ethics and potential conflicts of interest that can arise in engineering projects.

The code of ethics

Engineering covers a vast range of disciplines, and different groups oversee the ethics of the different areas of engineering. However, the various codes do broadly follow a similar pattern with similar principles. The code of ethics of the American Society for Civil Engineers has a history stretching back over a century. First adopted in 1914, it has been updated on many occasions to take into account the changing nature of engineering, with its most recent update taking place in October 2020. It states that its members should conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism, with the determination to protect and advance the safety, health and welfare of the public as paramount.

It features four principles that engineers should follow:

  • Creating safe, sustainable and resilient infrastructure.
  • Treating everyone with dignity, respect and fairness in a way that fosters equitable participation with no regard to personal identity.
  • Considering both the current and anticipated needs of society
  • Using their skills and knowledge to enhance humanity’s quality of life.

It then considers the different areas that civil engineers need to apply their code of ethics with more detail as to how it should be applied:


The most important part of this code of ethics, and the one that overrides all others in the event of a conflict, is that engineers should protect the health, welfare and safety of the public. They should also be committed to enhancing humanity’s quality of life and try to always be of service in civic affairs. Professional opinions should always be delivered truthfully and should only be expressed when based on sufficient knowledge, and they should not tolerate any form of bribery, corruption or fraud. Engineers should never decimate or harass others in any form and should consider the diverse social, cultural and historical needs of the community. When using technology or implementing new technologies, engineers should always consider their limitations and the implications. Lastly, they should be committed to reporting fraud, bribery, corruption and any other form of misconduct to the appropriate authorities.

Natural and built environment

There are several principles that relate to the natural and existing environment that engineers are expected to adhere to. They should stick to the principles of sustainable development and must both balance and consider its impact on society, the environment and the economy, while striving for improvements in the work. Any adverse effects on society, the environment or the economy should be mitigated, and resources should be used wisely to minimize depletion.

The profession

The engineers’ duty to the profession of engineering is that they should uphold its dignity, honor and integrity while practicing in compliance with the law and rejecting unfair competition. They should be truthful about their qualifications and experience and should continue their education with the aim of enhancing their technical and non-technical abilities. Engineers should also look to the future in mentorship and knowledge-sharing with both current and future engineers while also educating the public on the role of the engineer in society.

Employers and clients

Generally speaking, engineers work for others in the form of clients or employers, and this section of the code sets out their responsibilities to them. Engineers should be faithful agents of their employers or clients, acting with professionalism and integrity. Any conflicts of interest, whether real, perceived or potential, should be declared. If engineers feel there are any risks or limitations to their work, this should be communicated to clients in a timely manner. If the client or employer overrules their judgment, the possible consequences of this in terms of the health, safety and wellbeing of the public should be made clear. Any proprietary information should be kept confidential. Engineers should only take on responsibilities in their areas of competence and should only sign, seal or approve work products they have personally prepared or reviewed or that have been carried out under their responsible charge.


Engineers rarely work alone on projects and the final part of the code sets out the responsibilities of engineers with their peers to make sure the health and safety of the workplace are maintained. They should only take credit for professional work they have personally completed and provide attribution for the work of their colleagues. Behavior with colleagues should promote inclusivity, equitability and ethics. In collaborative work, engineers should act with honesty and fairness and be willing to enable and encourage the development and education of both current and future engineers. Engineers in a supervisory role should carry out this responsibility equitably and respectfully and should only comment in a professional manner on the personal character, work and reputation of other engineers. Any violations of the code of ethics should be reported.

Does the code matter?

It could be thought that the code is an unnecessary and extensive list of rules that might hamper creativity and innovation. Despite this, even a brief consideration of what could happen if the principles of the code of ethics are not adhered to should easily demonstrate that this is not the case. Instead, the code provides a secure framework where creativity and innovation can flourish while minimizing the risk to all involved in the progress of an engineering project and those whose lives are impacted by its conclusion.

Safety first

The most obvious benefit of the code of ethics is that safety is at the heart of it. Engineering frequently involves the use of potentially dangerous tools and substances and hazardous working conditions that could potentially cause accidents during the progress of the engineering project. Even once it has been completed, the danger has not necessarily passed. If it is not completed to the required standard, it could simply be an accident waiting to happen, resulting in injury or death later down the line.

Nobody involved in an engineering project wants to be responsible for an injury or death. However, the simple truth is that poor quality materials and equipment, fewer or less qualified employees working on the job and cutting corners to speed up production are all ways to reduce costs, and this could be tempting to those with their eyes solely on a quick profit.

Having a code of ethics provides the framework that allows those working on engineering projects a voice if safety standards slip. It gives them the confidence to speak up, demand better working conditions, adequate protective equipment and the expertise a project demands. It provides guidance on when to make a report if poor materials or rushed work might lead to a substandard result that, even if it looks safe, may conceal hazards.

Through the expectation of safety first, the lives of both the engineers working on the project and the overall public could be and probably have been saved.

Boosts reputation

Adhering strictly to the code of ethics will help protect your reputation. Anyone involved in a substandard or risky project who takes on tasks that they are not qualified to perform or who treats others with a lack of respect is not going to be someone engineering firms want to employ. By maintaining the standards set out in the code of ethics, you will present yourself as an individual who is an asset to have on the team.

From the point of view of engineering companies, the same principles apply. Cutting standards may save a bit of money on a single project, but the damage to reputation will be immense and will damage the company in the eyes of the public, making them less likely to secure contracts for future work. It may also leave the company open to legal action.

The code also boosts the overall reputation of the profession. By fostering safe, positive working environments with an excellent mentoring program, the profession will attract high-quality candidates who are considering their career options.

Protection for you and your colleagues

In addition to the expectation for physical safety in the workplace, which will allow you and your colleagues to come to work each day without fear, the code offers many other protections. When working for a company that adheres strictly to the code of ethics, you can expect to be treated with respect and without discrimination. If anyone strays from that, you can be confident your employers will deal with it appropriately.

Additional protection is provided through the clauses about not taking credit for another’s work. By adhering to the code of ethics, you and your colleagues can be confident that you will get credit where it is due. This is particularly valuable when seeking out new employment opportunities and promotions. The code of ethics can help ensure that an application is fair and that you are not losing out to a candidate who was chosen based on a false or exaggerated resume. The code also sets out an expectation against false accusations, helping to ensure your reputation is not damaged unfairly.


We are becoming increasingly aware that the world holds finite resources and that many of humanity’s actions are having an adverse impact on our planet. The code of ethics encourages engineers to be aware of this and to consider the environmental impact of engineering projects.

As less environmentally friendly practices with unsustainable resources can be cheaper and easier, this part of the code helps to make sure a company is not penalized financially for taking the more responsible, eco-conscious route while a more damaging practice is rewarded. 

With this emphasis on sustainability and minimizing the environmental impact, the more ecologically conscious an engineering company is, the greater their reputation. It will also encourage innovation and advances in this area to increasingly reduce any adverse environmental consequences. As a result of this, the importance of this part of the code to help safeguard the world for future generations cannot be stressed highly enough.


With ethical leadership, the working environment of an engineering company will be far more positive. Knowing they will be treated with respect and support will reduce workplace stress, often resulting in a higher standard of work. Workplace disputes should also be considered within the framework of the code of ethics, and it can help provide a structure for managers to consider the merits of the arguments. If you are aiming for an engineering leadership role, you should consider the benefits of sharing ideas and mentorship as a way to bring the highest standards to your team and attract future high-quality candidates.

The future

Just as the world of engineering is in a continual state of advancement as it rises to meet new challenges, the code of ethics will also be updated as necessary to remain relevant in a changing world. Engineering is a lifelong journey of learning as you keep up with the latest discoveries, but you should also be continually aware of how the code of ethics will impact them and keep up to date on any changes that arise in that code. Engineering remains an exciting and challenging field to work in. By maintaining an up-to-date code of ethics, it will also be a safe and fulfilling career.

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are two areas where advances are currently happening rapidly. The notion that AI could turn evil and start trying to take over the world sounds like, and for the time being, very much is, the stuff of science fiction. However, the developments in AI, like all emerging technologies, need to be considered in the context of the code of ethics. When developing automation or AI systems, engineers should keep the code of ethics in mind to ensure systems are not programmed with unconscious or conscious bias. Programmed by engineers who adhere strictly to the code of ethics, AI and other forms of automation will be a valuable enhancement to engineering projects. Those who see no problem with cutting corners, or discriminating against a particular group, being in charge of programming could lead to these systems causing problems in the not-so-distant future.

Engineers stand on the cutting-edge of innovation. The ideas they have today may form the technology we take for granted in the future. For those considering entering the profession, there has never been a more exciting time to get started, while for those already in position, there are multiple pathways that can lead to promotion and leadership roles. Engineering roles at all levels need creative types with technological expertise, but candidates also need to be committed to the highest ethical standards.

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