Why Ethics are important in engineering

 In career


Engineers are vital to shaping our world. Their decisions have far-reaching consequences—typically related to risk management. As such, it’s essential for engineers to hold themselves to a high standard.

In a survey published by the International Conference on Engineering Education (IEEE), 92 percent of respondents said ethical issues exist in engineering and could be improved. This kind of sentiment has led companies to examine their ethical standards, particularly in relation to engineering leadership.

If you’re interested in learning about how ethics shape engineering, here’s an overview of the industry’s ethical standards, why they’re important, and the role they play in leadership.


Engineering ethics are principles and guidelines engineers follow to ensure their decision-making is aligned with their obligations to the public, their clients, and the industry. The National Society of Professional Engineers’ code of ethics outlines the standards of ethical behavior engineers should follow in their professional lives. Those include:

  • Protecting public safety
  • Only performing tasks they’re qualified to do
  • Being honest in public communications
  • Remaining faithful and trustworthy to employers
  • Acting with integrity

These principles are designed to help you, as an engineer, make ethical decisions in your work and promote responsible use of industry technologies.


Trust is required between engineers and the public, which is why it’s crucial for you to understand the importance of acting ethically. Here are seven reasons why ethics matter in engineering.

1. Promotes Safety

The NSPE’s code of ethics requires you to prioritize public safety in your work.

For instance, you’re expected to notify employers and clients when their judgment is overruled because of dangerous circumstances or when documents don’t conform with applicable standards. Doing so can prevent harm to individuals and communities and ensure your work meets the highest safety and reliability standards.

In addition to ethical considerations, there’s a business case for safety in the workplace. Prioritizing safety not only protects employees and customers but also improves productivity and reduces costs associated with accidents and injuries. According to Liberty Mutual’s 2021 Workplace Safety Index, U.S. employers spend more than $1 billion per week on serious, nonfatal workplace injuries.

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2. Enhances Quality

Engineering ethics are also critical to improving your quality of work. According to NSPE’s code of ethics, you should only perform tasks that closely align with your education and experience.

This is important when working toward an engineering leadership position. For instance, as an organizational leader, you’ll often manage individuals who are experts in areas you know little about. You’ll need to shift from a specialist to a generalist management style by focusing on relationships, adding value by enabling work, considering the bigger picture, and relying on executive presence. The goal is to enable specialists on your team to do their highest-quality work.

The “leader as architect” concept—discussed in the Harvard Business School Online course Organizational Leadership taught by HBS professors Anthony Mayo and Joshua Margolis—refers to your role in enabling work to happen rather than doing it yourself.

“Since leaders can’t personally make those conditions happen for each person every day across a big organization, they don the hat of the architect,” Mayo says in Organizational Leadership. “And their work is to use a set of organizational components to create and sustain motivation, competence, and coordination.”

3. Improves Public Opinion

Ethics also help improve public opinion about engineering professions.

For example, the NSPE’s code of ethics requires you to be honest in your public communications through objective, truthful statements free of private interest, deception, or misrepresentation. Honesty in public relations is crucial to building trust. It’s even more critical for you as an engineer because your decisions directly affect the public’s safety and well-being.

In an era where communication skills are increasingly valued, it’s crucial to act ethically in your interactions with the public. Doing so can help improve perceptions about the engineering industry and demonstrate your commitment to ethical, responsible behavior.

4. Safeguards the Company’s Interests

Adhering to engineering ethics can also help protect your company’s interests.

The NSPE’s code of ethics discourages you from disclosing sensitive or confidential company information without explicit consent, obtaining employment or advancement with improper methods, and unethically harming other engineers’ professional reputations.

By adhering to these principles, you can help protect your firm’s interests—as well as your team’s—and ensure you contribute to its success.

5. Fosters Sustainability

Engineering ethics promote sustainability by requiring you to consider your work’s long-term impact on the environment and society. Additionally, sustainability is vital to modern business because it can improve your organization’s reputation, increase growth opportunities, and boost financial performance.

If you struggle to understand sustainability’s context in your role as an engineer, consider the triple bottom line, a concept that asserts businesses should go beyond financial performance and measure their social and environmental impacts. If you consider profit, people, and the planet in your daily work, you’re more likely to follow the industry’s ethical standards around sustainability.

6. Protects Other Engineers

Engineering ethics aren’t just meant to protect employers, clients, and the public. They also help protect individual engineers by discouraging all industry professionals from engaging in unethical or illegal behavior for their benefit.

The NSPE’s code of ethics  specifically states that “engineers shall not attempt to obtain employment or advancement by untruthfully criticizing other engineers.” It also specifies that “engineers shall not attempt to injure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other engineers.”

These guidelines are especially important when considering your team’s performance and productivity. Fostering an environment that promotes employee engagement can prevent negative dynamics from corrupting your workplace.

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7. Secures Company Assets

Engineering ethics help ensure your team members and organizational leaders act in ways that protect your company’s intellectual property and confidential information.

The designs, inventions, and writings created by your team are often recognized as the property of either your client or the individual responsible for those assets. You must acknowledge such ownership agreements prior to beginning work. In doing so, you can prevent theft and misuse of your company’s assets and protect its investments.


Leading ethically is critical to long-term success in the engineering industry. Ethical leaders model honorable behavior, set an example, and foster cultures of integrity and respect.

“A leader needs to be adaptable and step out of their comfort zone if they want to foster a culture in which others do the same,” Mayo says in Organizational leadership.

By adhering to the tenets of ethical leadership, you can hire individuals whose principles align with your organization’s values.

“You want to look for individuals whose values, attitudes, and skills are consistent with what your organization needs and cares about,” Margolis says in the course.


Ethics are crucial in engineering. They not only promote quality work but also encourage you to operate safely and maintain a high standard of ethical responsibility.

As an organizational leader, you often dictate your company’s culture and values. Understanding engineering ethics—and the business skills needed to apply them—is essential to your success.

By furthering your education through an organizational leadership course, you can learn how to adapt to constantly evolving responsibilities and become an effective leader.


Source: Harvard Business School Online

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