Earnest Ethics and Obligations - Part II
In recognition of Ohio’s requirement for ethics content as part of professional development, this month continues the fictional situation faced by Earnest and Pat in the November column. Again, we are seeking your perspectives; please reply with your thoughts on these hypothetical situations.
When Unknown Past Errors are Uncovered
As owner and president of a small engineering consulting firm, Pat President recognizes the value of continuing education. Pat also understands that as engineer’s knowledge base grows, the standard of care due from professionals also changes. Understandably, Pat’s firm subsidizes employee continuing education and seeks to update company standards based on new developments.
Pat is informed that by attending a seminar, Earnest, an engineer at the firm, has learned a more effective calculation method. Unfortunately this knowledge also enlightens Earnest of past, potentially serious errors. And Earnest shares findings of a preliminary investigation regarding the error: most past projects are unaffected, but at least one has a significant deficiency.
Upon learning some details, Pat is relieved by the understanding that none of the expected signs of distress from the error have been reported. But the relief is not complete, this is a project undertaken during difficult times for the firm which might affect the approach going forward.
Question 1: Does Pat have an ethical obligation to immediately inform the building owner of the newly discovered design deficiency?
During the economic challenges of the late 2000s, like many company owners, Pat was faced with some tough decisions. One particularly difficult decision involved the firm’s financial position. The company revenue stream was at an all time low, and its liquid resources were nearly exhausted. Yet expenses continued to accrue. Pat knew that the firm’s value and its potential was a function of its staffing. Reducing staff would limit future potential and have significantly negative effects on any laid-off employee. Pat chose to continue paying staff and drop some otherwise “necessary” expenses until the financial situation improved. One such expense was insurance for errors and omissions.
Question 2: If Pat must choose between staff reduction and continuing payment of liability insurance, what is the ethical choice?
When Earnest informs Pat of the design deficiency, Pat is concerned by more than the error. Included is a recollection this project was delivered during the time when the firm had failed to make several insurance payments. Further, Pat understands that the project owner has a reputation for initiating litigation. So Pat is not only concerned with the possible future effects of the error to the public, but also the possible ramifications to the firm employees of notifying a litigious owner. Pat suggests Earnest focus on the current work before reviewing more past projects and says he will be updated once a decision is made.
Question 3: What should Pat do?
Pat contacts the insurance representative and is informed that the project is not covered. Next, Pat arranges to meet with legal counsel to better understand legal aspects of the firm’s options. Several days later, Pat leaves the meeting under the impression that disclosure of the error is likely the best recourse, but is unsure of how quickly this should be done. Pat engages legal counsel to provide advice with the goal of providing disclosure while attempting to minimize the potential consequences to the firm and employees.
Question 4: Was there an alternate option Pat should have taken?
Question 5: What effects would any alternate option have on the firm and employees?
Developing a plan takes more time than Pat anticipated and the risks seem significant. In what might seem like adding gasoline to a fire, Earnest shares his discovery of more errors. Pat is understandably distressed and, seeking some degree of partial relief, requests Earnest to keep the information confidential until further notice.
Pat arranges a meeting with the building owner for the project Earnest first noted and divulges the sequence leading to this point. Further Pat offers to perform the engineering for modifications to bring the building up to code standards free of charge. The owner, clearly disturbed, concludes the meeting by notifying Pat he will seek legal redress to ensure he has a building in accordance with the contract specifications.
On the drive back to the office, with the future of the firm and employees uncertain, Pat decides to disclose all of Earnest’s findings to both the relevant clients and the proper code officials - fully aware that it can mean financial ruin.
Question 6: How would you react if you were in the role of Earnest or Pat?
While the situation in these two articles is hypothetical, the concerns raised represent dilemmas that can arise in the disclosure of errors. These can be related to much more than the technical aspects of design and influence many people beyond those involved in the project delivery.
Please share your thoughts regarding this topic and the questions raised. We also welcome your input on any other topic related to engineering licensure. Please contact us if you would like to contribute to this column.
Timothy M. Gilbert, P.E., S.E., SECB
SEAoO Licensure Committee