Engineering Ethics Case Study


Art Madsen, M.Ed.


Engineering Case Analysis


This case could be construed to deal with an issue of insubordination because Engineer A did not accept the decision of his superior, Engineer B.  After learning that his Conference attendance might be denied, Engineer A took an unexpected opportunity to discuss his Conference participation with the CEO. This would seem, at first glance, to represent use of an unauthorized channel of communication in the normal hierarchy of command.  Complicating this matter, however, are the Company’s rules that permit such Conference trips, even several times per year.

Concise Statement of Problem


            The problem to be resolved is essentially summarized as follows: Was Engineer A ethically correct in casually mentioning to the CEO his desire, or professional need, to participate in a company-approved Conference, in spite of his immediate supervisor’s opposition to his attendance?

The Two Sides of the Case

            On the one hand, it could be stated that Engineer A was wrong, because he clearly violated the chain of command by inappropriately discussing with the CEO his need to attend the Conference. This justifiably angered his boss, Engineer B. 

            On the other hand, Engineer A could be considered correct in approaching the CEO because his own superior was clearly disregarding Company Policy pertaining to  Conference attendance.

Discussion of the Ethical Aspects of the Case

            In my opinion, this is not specifically an “ethical” issue in the true sense of the NSPE Code of Ethics because it does not concern a professional engineering decision that directly affects the lives of clients or the general public.  Instead, it seems to be an administrative dilemma that involves personalities and relationships, rather than purely ethical considerations.  Even if it could be considered a violation of hierarchy, the overriding priority is the advancement of company interests through employee attendance at such Conferences.  Thus, it is clearly in the interest of the Company that Engineer A attend this conference, and both the CEO and Company Rules agree with this approach.  Engineer B may have had departmental priorities that required Engineer A to remain on the job, but he should have explained this to Engineer A and to the CEO, which he appears not to have done. 

In summary, therefore, this lack of apparent logic on the part of Engineer B left the door open for Engineer A to seek a solution to his desire, and professional need, to attend the Conference.  At the first opportunity, it was “natural”, not “unethical”, for him to obtain proper implementation of Company Policy on Conference Attendance.  He did so at the time of his unanticipated meeting with the CEO.

            In the case study there seems to be no deliberate attempt on the part of Engineer A to upstage or disobey his immediate supervisor, but rather to seek a “just” solution to his Conference request. 

Resolution of the Dilemma

            Given the foregoing, it would be best for Engineer A to explain to the CEO that his superior, Engineer B, felt upset by B’s decision having been overridden by the CEO.  Engineer A could ask the CEO to speak with Engineer B and smooth over the situation diplomatically.  All three of the parties involved should be aware that Company Policy on Conference Attendance takes priority over emotions and misunderstandings. Ethics were not involved in this case, in the formal sense.  Rather, it was an administrative problem.

Transnational Research Associates