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Perspectives of Engineers on Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Ethical Reasoning and Responsibility

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education in the CEAE Department, as well as the ABET assessment coordinator. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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Nathan E. Canney Seattle University

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Dr. Canney teaches civil engineering at Seattle University. His research focuses on engineering education, specifically the development of social responsibility in engineering students. Other areas of interest include ethics, service learning, and the role of the public in engineering decisions. Dr. Canney received bachelors degrees in Civil Engineering and Mathematics from Seattle University, a masters in Civil Engineering from Stanford University with an emphasis on structural engineering, and a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Confronting ethical dilemmas in the workplace can lead to moral distress; in the medical field this phenomenon has been related to individuals changing jobs or leaving the profession. The research questions explored in this study were: To what extent do engineers feel that they are confronted with ethical dilemmas at work? Did ethical dilemmas contribute to changing jobs or careers? Did these issues vary between types of engineering jobs, engineering disciplines, or gender? A survey was conducted to evaluate the extent to which engineers perceived that they were faced with ethical dilemmas in the workplace. Responses were received from 504 individuals and represented 719 different jobs. For 31% of the jobs, individuals indicated that they never felt that they had been confronted with an ethical or moral dilemma regarding how their work impacted people, society, and/or the environment. This may truly reflect a lack of these circumstances, or may indicate that some individuals are not adept at recognizing such issues. For 34% of the jobs, ethical/moral dilemmas were encountered infrequently and were not of significant personal concern, compared to ethical/moral dilemmas encountered infrequently but of significant personal concern in 16% of the cases. Smaller percentages of the jobs were reported to have frequent ethical dilemmas that were and were not of significant personal concern; 9% and 8%, respectively. Finally, 2% indicated that the moral/ethical dilemma was the primary reason that they had left their job. These cases might reflect that the individual was in moral distress, feeling powerless to pursue what they believed to be an ethical course of action. The frequency and degree of concern of ethical dilemmas encountered varied between job sectors and engineering disciplines, but not by gender. Informing students about the likelihood of encountering ethical dilemmas might better prepare them for these challenges. It might also be wise to discuss different types of ethical issues that are more likely in particular contexts, such as international development work versus research.

Bielefeldt, A. R., & Canney, N. E. (2016, June), Perspectives of Engineers on Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25892

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