Spotlight on ethics in engineering


Ethics in engineering has been put under the spotlight by the Charbonneau Commission. Since then, the industry has done a lot to restore its image and reputation by working with both its current and future members.

The Charbonneau Commission stirred things up. More to the point, it blew the lid off a decades-long unlawful and unprofessional way of getting things done. A way hidden and largely unchallenged.

Enacted in late 2011 as a public inquiry in Quebec, the commission exposed a tangled web of corruption and collusion in the management of public construction contracts. Few are exempt. Private organizations, government sectors and municipalities have all profited. And testimony has shed light on links to financing of political parties as well as the possible infiltration of organized crime.

In speedy response, the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ) has ramped up its efforts to restore the public’s confidence in the professionalism of its membership, over 60,000 engineers province-wide. And educational institutions are striving to further sensitize students to the engineering profession’s ethical dimensions.

“Ethics is definitely one of the four values of professional engineering, along with competence, responsibility and social commitment, says Stéphane Bilodeau, Eng., Ph.D., and President of the OIQ. “It’s one of the important topics we’re sharing with our members and the public. Protecting the public is part of our mission. We promote that in everything we do.”

Along with the stringent requirements for membership in the OIQ, Bilodeau cites a special mandatory course and exam on ethics and professionalism for its members, with few exceptions. As well, Les matingénieurs, a series of four workshops offered in Montreal and Quebec City, have addressed practical issues such as business practices and the supervision of engineering works. And at the OIQ’s annual conference last May, workshops and discussions related to professionalism and ethics were up front on the agenda.

Planting a seed of awareness

Among the OIQ members are many academics who teach the future crop of professional engineers. As a support, the OIQ has developed and offers workshops geared specifically to academics. Bilodeau is pleased that workshop participants often incorporate the material into their own courses.

Lawrence Chen, a professor in McGill University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and OIQ member, says he draws greatly upon OIQ material.

“I made students aware of professional values as seen by the OIQ,” Chen says of the introductory engineering course he recently offered. “I gave them a brief intro to ethical theories, then asked them how they would go about making an ethical decision. I use the same kinds of questions the Order uses. If you can answer yes to all of them you can be satisfied you’ve made an ethical decision.”

For one assignment, Chen presented students with an ethical issue and asked them to make and justify their decision referring to ethical theories and using the six-step process of ethical decision making.

In the past five years, we’ve seen an increase in enquiries of more than 500%.
— Stéphane Bilodeau, Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec

“Many students said that in finding solutions, they hadn’t realized the impact they had on society,” he says. “The whole point of this introductory course is to plant a seed of awareness.”

Drea Gideon, Vice-President Academic of McGill University’s Engineering Undergraduate Society, agrees that the course does instill a sense of awareness. And she notes that a required final-year course, Engineering Professional Practice, pulls together the principles being taught.

“I wouldn’t say results of the Charbonneau Commission have given a negative view of the profession itself,” says the fourth-year Electrical Engineering student. “It’s given a negative view of the people it implicated.” She believes that if students leave Quebec following graduation, it’s due to career opportuni- ties elsewhere, not with disillusionment about the engineering profession
in Quebec.

Working on the future

The OIQ maintains contact with students through an ongoing presence on campuses. As well, representatives meet with graduate students almost yearly and in 2013, the OIQ added a President’s tour. Students and teachers were invited to speak directly with the President on matters related to professionalism, OIQ admission requirements as well as career

For its members and the public, the OIQ has its 1-877-ETHIQUE hot line, which serves two official purposes. It helps educate by providing specific information to members’ questions and can be used to report risky situations or derogatory acts. The Order receives about 1,100 to 1,300 calls per year.

“In the past five years, we’ve seen an increase in enquiries of more than 500%,” says Bilodeau. “Before 2008-2009, enquiries were more on the technical side. Now, more concern illegal contributions to political parties, collusion and corruption.”

In response, the OIQ has doubled the resources of the Office of the Syndic and, according to Bilodeau, is starting to see the results.

“More engineers have had to face the disciplinary council,” he states. “So far, 30 engineers in relation to corruption and collusion and funding. We are also using our inspection program to educate and to raise awareness of professional issues and ethics to our members.”

The OIQ has about 20 inspectors in its professional inspection program. In 2013-2014 they conducted 1,522 inspections. The objective for 2014-2015 is to conduct 1,700 inspections.

In a further initiative, the OIQ is creating suggestions for the Charbonneau Commission to help improve the two areas that have received the most attention at the hearings, contract management and the contract-award process.

“We want to work on the long-term future of the profession,” says Bilodeau. “We want to create the kind of environment where misconduct will be eliminated.”

This article is taken from Les carrières de l’ingénierie 2015 (namely Careers in Engineering)