The purpose of this article is to give my point of view on the subject of ethics. Before I begin, I ask you to please remember that I am not a writer by any means. By education, I am an engineer. I have been in the appliance industry for more than 20 years, and before that I worked in the aerospace and automotive industries. When I was first asked to do this article, I respectfully declined. The reason I initially gave was because I was too busy. Then, the more I thought about it, I realized that reason was in itself unethical. How can I not find the time to let others know my thoughts on such an important subject?
Ethics in today’s world is more difficult to judge than ever. There are so many things constantly tugging us into the gray areas, making it more difficult to determine what’s in the white area and what’s in the black area. I’m an engineer, and I usually think like one. I hate dealing in the gray areas. I like life to be either white or black because it makes it easier for me to make decisions, and it reduces the level of frustration when dealing with difficult decisions.
What if you had an engineering idea or issue that may not end up being satisfactory to the customer, but would be good for the business? Many times, issues are painted in that way. The obvious answer is that short-term thinking allows you to rationalize and take the easy way out. As an ethical engineer, you need to understand the difference between short-term and long-term thinking. This cognitive ability is actually very well suited to engineers. We like to solve puzzles. We like to find the best answers. We have a lot riding on our shoulders.
Remember when you were growing up and learning some of your values? One of those was that one lie could turn into multiple lies, just to cover up the first one. Ethics is kind of like that. Once you make the unethical decision, it’s easier to keep doing it. Let’s face it; most people don’t like making tough decisions. They want the easy way out. But that type of thinking usually isn’t in the best interest of the customer—or you.
What if you were faced with the decision to release a product that failed to meet standards? The product needs to be released to meet the monthly shipment goals. Do you meet the quality goal or the business goal?
A long time ago, I worked for a company that had to make the monthly shipments so we could get paid. It was a small company, but the lessons are the same. Making the shipments and getting paid were all short-term in nature. Products started failing in the field. Eventually, the customer was dissatisfied that the product failed to meet some design and test standards, forcing us to fix the issues, and we lost money on the project due to rework costs. We lost future business because of our poor quality history. The company was eventually sold, and many people were left unemployed. The point is, if you take the high road, it may not be the popular position to take this week, but you need to focus on the future.
You have to make a choice: Do the right thing or make my boss happy. In reality, that’s the lazy way to look at it. Most of the time, if you look hard enough, it’s not really the only choice. Smart, bright, inventive engineers can usually find the answer that meets all wants. Most of the time, you can make your boss happy and be ethical, too. Generally, people understand these decisions when they understand the issues and the facts behind the issues. Engineers are good teachers—so teach.
I usually think about ethics as the right thing to do. Is that oversimplifying? Is that an accurate definition? Some Internet research used terms like:
• Setting and promoting high standards
• Conducting business in accordance with the highest moral and ethical standards and in full compliance of the laws
• Conduct ourselves with a high level of consideration and respect
• Act responsibly and maintain highest levels of conduct
• Awareness of your moral compass
So even if I try to conduct my life by these definitions, is it still ethical to do things that apparently won’t hurt anyone else, especially when I won’t get caught? It might be legal. But is it right? No one knows the wiser. Except me. I know the difference between right and wrong. I know when I’ve made the right choice. Others may not define it as the correct choice, but I know if it’s the right one.
When my children were young and participated in sports one of the principles I tried to instill in them was to do your best. To me, this meant being true to yourself, being a good teammate that others could count on, and knowing that whatever you did, you gave it your best shot. That way you were being ethical to yourself and to others.
To me, ethics is the same for both the business side of life and my personal life. They are my guiding light in making decisions and a large part of my values.
So, ask yourself: Are you an ethical person? Can you look back on your career and feel honorable? And, most importantly, what will you do when nobody’s watching?
About the Author
Tim Brooks is a member of the APPLIANCE magazine Engineer Advisory Board. He is senior manager of Corporate Product Safety at Whirlpool Corporation. Brooks has an MBA from the University of Dayton (Dayton, Ohio, U.S.) and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from General Motors Institute (Flint, Michigan, U.S.). If you wish to contact Brooks, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org