Ethics in the Consulting World

This week’s readings on organizations have made me reflect on my experience working in a mid-sized geotechnical and geoenvironmental consulting firm.  While some of the statements by Harris et al. and Alford resonate, I’m not sure that all types of companies and engineers fit within their paradigms.

For example, I’m not sure that every organization/company is feudalistic.  In general, my experience in consulting was not that way.  I rarely if ever felt like a vassal in under the thumb of an all-powerful engineering manager.  That’s not to say things were perfect, or that politics weren’t present.  But we had a relatively fluid structure and significant amount of autonomy within the firm. Because of its size, our firms owners were also the primary managers and also the principal engineers.  This meant that there was no real separation existed between the engineering staff and the managerial staff.

I was also intrigued by the distinction between managerial and engineering decisions made by Harris et al.  In the context of consulting engineering that I was exposed to,  it really difficult to think of many situations were this type of dilemma would have come up.  Our typical job was provide geotechnical recommendations to an outside client.  If they chose to ignore these recommendations, the client could do so, for good or for bad.  During the design phase of projects, we would provide both general and specific recommendations as required by our contract with little managerial consideration, aside from engineering judgment calls – more about this in a minute.  On the construction end of a project, the managerial and the engineering are often separated among different firms.  Managerial duties fall to the construction company or manager while engineering duties are performed by separate firms with contracts directly with the owner or sometimes through the construction manager.  The final decision falls to the owner with the combined advice of the other professionals on the project team.

Geotechnical engineers, arguably more than any other branch of civil engineering, must make engineering judgment calls based on limited data.  Are these ethical decisions?  Can they be examples of the engineering vs. managerial conflict presented by Harris?  At least sometimes, yes.

Let me give an example.  My firm was asked to provide construction observation and materials testing services (a lucrative and badly needed project) for a new shopping center being built by a good client of ours.  Design recommendations had been provided by another firm and included bearing foundations directly on the shale bedrock present on the site.  Based on nearby experience, this shale was known by our firm to be expansive, meaning that it could cause serious structural issues to the buildings in the future.  We did not have data showing that the conditions were problematic, but in our best engineering judgment could not go along in silence with a project we felt was doomed to problems in the future.  We tried convincing the client to change the design but that proved cost-prohibitive for them.  In the end we decided to turn down the work based on our engineering judgment and the managerial consideration of the potential liability incurred by being part of the project team.  The managerial concerns of pleasing a client and potential profits were superseded by concerns rooted in engineering.

The legal quandary faced by whistle-blowers, which Alford describes, also has a parallel for many small consulting firms.  These firms often face lawsuits on projects where they did nothing wrong, aside from being associated with a project where something went awry.  Both parties are in a relative sense the little guy in our expensive legal system.  While the lawsuits may come for very different reasons, neither party has the financial wherewithal to weather long lawsuits that rarely decide in their favor.  In their position as defendants, it is almost always cheaper to settle the case by paying up than fighting it in court.  The question begs: Is it unethical to implicitly admit wrongdoing by settling just to save money?  More importantly, what can be done about our system to remedy these situations?

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