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Ethics codes changing to reflect an evolving society

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A/E professional organizations are updating their codes of ethics to address the issues at the forefront of our culture and climate.

Several professional organizations, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), have recently amended their codes to reflect design professionals’ increased awareness of diversity, harassment and environmental issues.

In 2017, the ASCE adopted a brand-new canon in its Code of Ethics that requires members to “treat all persons fairly,” and the NSPE added new language to its Code of Ethics for Engineers to address discrimination. More recently, the AIA board of directors approved an amended Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct that specifically deals with sexual harassment, equity in the profession, and sustainability.

Al Rabasca, AXA XL’s Director of Industry Relations, is pleased to see the professional organizations reexamining and amending their codes of ethics. Rabasca says he’s found design professionals’ actions “second to none, when it comes to treating everyone with dignity and fairness and without discrimination.” However, in the current business atmosphere, and in the interest of raising public awareness of the integrity and dignity of the design professions, he believes it’s good for the groups to codify these aspirations for all to see and follow.

Amending the codes

Generally, changes to codes of ethics are driven by either routine review or by membership initiative.

The AIA’s National Ethics Council chair, Anzilla Gilmore, FAIA, NOMA, says the AIA updates its code as needed. Changes to the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct must be adopted by the convention of the institute or by a two-thirds vote of the entire Board of Directors,” she says.

According to the NSPE’s Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel, Arthur Schwartz, the code is constantly reviewed by the NSPE Board of Ethical Review based on ongoing changes in professional engineering practice as well as other considerations. “The NSPE Board of Ethical Review will identify an issue that needs to be addressed in the Code of Ethics, drafts new language or modifies existing language and then submits a formal recommendation to our Board of Directors,” Schwartz says. “If the Board of Directors agrees with the board of ethical review regarding the need for the change, the proposed language will be presented to the NSPE House of Delegates for final approval.”

For the first time in 50 years, the ASCE is reviewing its code with an eye toward streamlining and updating it to reflect the cultural shifts in society and changes in the industry. President Robin Kemper, quoted in the ASCE News, says, “Through time, the Code of Ethics has been reworked, things have been added, maybe things have been taken out, but we’ve not looked at it as a whole since 1974.”

In Canada, provincial and territorial engineering and architecture regulators have their own codes of ethics as well as practice standards. See the sidebar, “Resources,” for more information.

Addressing equity and harassment

In the recent amendment to the AIA Code of Ethics, several rules were updated to include language to address harassment and equity in the profession. (The AIA also released a statement about its commitments to combatting harassment in the workplace and to making the profession more fair and inclusive.)

The 2018 amendment to the Code of Ethics was driven by the membership,” Gilmore says. “The amendment, which started as a resolution, was an expression by the members of their concern. The consensus was that the architectural profession had not yet attained the workplace culture that is required.”

The NSPE’s Schwartz says the most recent change to the NSPE Code of Ethics was in July 2019 to add the following language to the section on professional obligations: “Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.”

The ASCE Board of Direction voted unanimously to adopt Canon 8. Guidelines to the canon read, in part: “Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation without regard to gender or gender identity, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, or family, marital, or economic status.”

Taking on sustainability

Schwartz says the following language was added to the NSPE Code of Ethics section on professional obligations to address sustainability in 2007: “Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations.” The code defines "sustainable development" as “the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development.”

The AIA had also previously added language that addressed sustainability. But the 2018 amended code goes much further, addressing specific environmental priorities such as water, energy, and climate change. In addition, a new rule has been added so that disciplinary action can be taken against a member who has failed to consider, along with the client, the environmental effects of their project decisions. (Learn more about the new/revised amendments here.) In September 2019, the AIA’s board of directors also approved a member-driven “landmark” resolution that defines “immediate and long-term efforts to engage the architectural profession in the fight against climate change.”

 

"  In September 2019, the AIA’s board of directors also approved a member-driven “landmark” resolution that defines “immediate and long-term efforts to engage the architectural profession in the fight against climate change.”

 

Member feedback

At the NSPE, Schwartz says the feedback to the changes were “very positive.” The additions of Section III.2.d, “Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations,” and III.1.f, “Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness, and without discrimination,” were approved by the NSPE House of Delegates without dissent, he says.

“The NSPE believes sustainability and environmental stewardship should be a key part of the professional practice for all engineers,” Schwartz says. “In addition, in the practice of professional engineering, it is critically important for professional engineers to oppose discrimination and to respect all persons.”

Gilmore says the AIA’s National Ethics Council hadn’t received any direct or formal feedback regarding the new rules, but that it’s not surprising, given the council’s role. Nor have there been any disciplinary actions under the new amended rules, she says, “but that is also not surprising, as it takes months and sometimes over a year for a case to be adjudicated.” Gilmore says that any pending cases are confidential.

The AIA is committed to broadening equity, diversity, and inclusion to create a stronger profession while empowering architects to design a world that allows people, communities, and our planet to thrive,” Gilmore says. “The AIA Code of Ethics is a reflection of these values.”

 

Canons and obligations

While there is considerable similarity among the codes of A/E professional organizations, they are not the same.

The AIA’s Code of Ethics is divided into six canons that list a member’s ethical obligations: general obligations and obligations to the public, the client, the profession, colleagues and, since 2007, the environment. Each canon has ethical standards that give specific aspirational goals. Many standards also have rules of conduct, which are mandatory; violation of a rule is grounds for disciplinary action. The Code of Ethics is enforced by the AIA National Ethics Council, which meets to hear and consider complaints under strict rules of procedure for considering ethics cases. The council issues redacted versions of its decisions, as well as advisory opinions, which demonstrate how the AIA Code of Ethics applies to a particular situation.

TheNSPE Code of Ethicsfor Engineershas three sections: fundamental canons, rules of practice, and professional obligations and is designed to provide guidance and advice concerning the primary and basic obligations of engineers. The NSPE Board of Ethical Review renders impartial opinions pertaining to the interpretation of theNSPE Code of Ethics, develops materials, and conducts studies relating to engineering profession ethics. The NSPE has released a major upgrade to its publicly available database of over 600 ethical review cases.

Thecurrent ASCE Code of Ethics is also built on a canon model, including the familiar Canon 1, which reads in part, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public…” Each canon offers Guidelines to Practice. To enforce the code, the ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct holds hearings and recommends disciplinary action to the group’s executive committee. Proceedings can result in exoneration, a letter of admonition, suspension or expulsion.

 

Resources

United States:

AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

ACEC Professional and Ethical Conduct Guidelines

ASCE: A Question of Ethics

NSPE Ethics Resources

Canada:

The Alberta Association of Architects (AAA) Code of Ethics

Architectural Institute of British Columbia Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA) Legal Obligations & Code of Ethics

Engineers Canada: Public Guideline on the code of ethics

Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) Code of Ethics

Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) Code of Ethics

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