The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
United States of America
by Roger M. Boisjoly, PE
Reprinted from IEEE-USA AICNCC Newsletter (September 1998)
[Roger Boisjoly has his own consulting practice, which now
largely consists of lecturing on the subjects of professionalism and ethics. He was
formerly a member of the Morton Thiokol engineering team responsible for the booster
rockets that help lift the space shuttle, and subsequently lost both his job and his
health over a matter of ethics involving a failed launch. He has been recognized by
the American Association of Engineering Societies for his outstanding professionalism.]
My professional beliefs stem from a 27 year career in the Aerospace industry as a
Mechanical Engineer. I also formed my own Forensic Engineering firm and for the past 10
years practiced as a consultant and a lecturer on Ethics, Professionalism and
Organizational Behavior, giving over 300 talks. From this experience base I share the
following insights. It is incumbent for all of us as professionals, with or without a
license, to practice our profession with the utmost of Integrity, Ethics and
If we worked in industry it would be easy to show the benefits of becoming licensed, or
at a minimum belonging to a good technical society. During my recent experiences I have
discovered the answer to the question, "Why should I get licensed or join a good
professional society?" Obtaining a license or belonging to a professional society
won't make you a better engineer. All the journals published can easily be obtained from
the library for career enhancement without any professional membership. So what does
licensure and membership in technical societies offer? They both offer one of the most
important professional tools we can have and use: A Code of Ethics.
However, don't look at the codes in the usual fashion as "after the fact"
mostly useless pieces of paper, almost solely used to place blame on subordinate
individuals after an event has occurred. Even though this has been the norm in the past,
I'm suggesting a fresh approach to use the codes proactively, before the event is allowed
to happen. Used in this way there is a high probability that a negative event can be
stopped or at the least minimized. It is easy to see this with the following example in an
A superior attempts to direct a subordinate engineer to sign off the paperwork on a
discrepant part or process. Everyone who has ever worked as a responsible engineer has had
this experience and many avoid any confrontation by simply signing the document, even
though in their heart and conscience they know they shouldn't. Some refuse to sign off on
the discrepant part, and depending upon their status and value in the organization, they
may avoid any hint of damage to their careers. However, on the other side of the coin,
others who are viewed as less valuable by the organization may experience some sort of
career damage. At the very least, all three scenarios have one common thread that is
"the ever present implied threat of career damage for not playing ball." This is
very sad but real and is not unique to only our profession. The alternative to always
feeling the "implied" threat is to turn tables on the superiors by using the
Code of Ethics as a shield.
If you are an experienced and valuable subordinate employee, it is my belief from
experience that you have more latitude than you actually realize without causing career
damage. The use of the Code of Ethics as a proactive tool will do nothing but enhance a
subordinate's ability to stand firm in refusing to participate in any wrongdoing. The
following industrial scenario will help explain my belief.
When a superior asks a subordinate to engage in any wrongdoing, the subordinate should
reply that they cannot because their Code of Ethics prevents such activity. This statement
is then immediately reinforced using a short statement from the Code to the effect that
the subordinate is obligated to "Hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the
public," and in this case the "public" is the customer. The subordinate
should additionally state that the Code further requires that if the superior persists in
the attempted wrongdoing that the subordinate shall notify any such authority deemed
appropriate. At the very least this will cause the superior to pause and think about the
potential consequences being set in motion by persisting in the attempt to secure the
subordinate's signature using the implied process of "career damage" to secure
blind loyalty to all directives.
This impasse will undoubtedly cause the superior to think about the potential of
becoming the focal point for causing a failure and/or a lawsuit and/or negative public
relations resulting from some future investigation of the wrongdoing with the very real
consequences of personal career damage. I believe that this thought process is what really
precipitates the final rationale causing the superior to back off and thus defuse the
potential of being responsible for a visible negative event. In my 27 years of experience
in the Aerospace industry I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of similar events.
However, I never once had the person who was demanding my signature on an inappropriate
document overrule my decision not to sign and then sign the document themselves. This
speaks very loud and clear about the superior wanting to shift all potential for future
accountability to the subordinate by demanding that the subordinate become exposed by
signing the document. It also clearly verifies that superiors don't want any exposure in
accountability and that is why they always opt not to sign, even thought they have the
authority to sign, over the objection of a subordinate.
This experience has been verified with colleagues and is the basis for my belief that
we all need some additional tools. These tools will help us avoid the inevitable conflicts
that arise between managers and subordinates, which are usually caused by the pressure on
managers from mostly unrealistic schedules and cost demands. Also, imagine for a
moment the ethical results that could be obtained from each attempted event if all the
professionals in a specific group within an organization subscribed to the same behavior.
The implied positive ethical pressure that such a group could bring to pass would be both
enormous and very beneficial to the organization for the long term success of any company
and all its employees.
Although the scenarios are used in an industrial setting for ease of explanation, the
same tools can be of benefit to those of us who are principals in our own consulting
firms. At this point I will share some of the contract verbiage I used in my consulting
business so my potential client knew clearly and up front where I stood on ethical
behavior. I first listed a Fee Schedule that clearly listed hourly rates; retainer
required; cost for associated services, like travel, supplies, etc.; and any special
hourly rate for special work like depositions and trial testimony. Then I listed my Terms
and Conditions that stated my rules for being hired as a consultant:
- CLIENT must clearly understand that any and all CONCLUSIONS and OPINIONS will be based
upon facts and Scientific Principles, and that this Principle will not be compromised.
Client will be notified at once if Contractor's Conclusions and Opinions conflict with
- All timeis measured portal to portal and billed at the regular hourly rate.
- Trips requiring overnight stays will be billed for time spent on the case between 8:00
am and 5:00 pm or such greater time as is actually worked and traveled.
- Retainer will be credited against final bill.
- Fees will be billed monthly, and payment is due from Client within 30 days, unless other
arrangements are made with Boisjoly Engineering, Ltd., or the Contractor reserves the
right to cease work and/or not to testify on delinquent accounts. The Contractor reserves
the right to charge a late fee of 1.25% per month on all invoices not paid within 30 days
of receipt by Client. The Client shall pay any and all legal fees and costs incurred by
the Contractor in the collection of its account.
- It is understood that our Contractor services are as an Independent Professional
Consultant, and that payment of fees for same shall be made promptly by Client and is not
contingent upon the results of any legal action, arbitration, settlement, or collection.
This shall include time and costs in response to discovery efforts by opposing
- Contractor shall not be liable for any delay or failure to perform the work assignment
which is the subject of this agreement if such delay or failure is caused directly or
indirectly by fire, flood, explosion, or other casualty, strike, labor disturbance, state
of war, insurrection, riot, government regulations, either existent or future restriction,
appropriations, or any other cause beyond the control of the Contractor.
- Contractor's liability arising out of its performance under the agreement shall be
limited to claims directly attributable to the failure of the Contractor to exercise the
degree of skill and performance normally exercised by duly qualified persons performing
under similar functions. All dispute resolution shall reside in Duchesne County, Utah.
Liability is limited to the unpaid invoices due and no punitive damages shall be assessed.
- All product development and/or redesign work performed by Contractor during the term of
this agreement that may lead to a patent or copyright shall be the exclusive property of
- The terms and conditions of this contract constitute the entire agreement between
Contractor and retaining Client. Any terms, revisions, or conditions in Client's purchase
orders, correspondence, or other forms which are inconsistent with the terms, revisions,
or conditions of Contractor documents are void, unenforceable, and not a part of this
agreement. The return of a signed copy of this agreement and/or retainer payment
acknowledges acceptance by the Client of the above fees, terms and conditions and is the
Contractor's authorization to proceed on the case captioned below. Pending confirmation or
receipt of retainer, it is understood that the Contractor has not been engaged for this
assignment, and reserves the right to accept assignment by others in lieu of your firm.
Some of you may think that this contract format was more important for me to do because
I worked for attorneys in the litigation process. However, I believe that similar behavior
is very important for every professional, regardless of their chosen profession. I
probably lost a few consulting opportunities due to my contract structure but that was
very acceptable to me since I didn't want to consult for anyone who had already
predetermined my investigation results. In addition I had several very short engagements
resulting from my initial findings being contrary to my client's position and that was
also acceptable to me.
My Professionalism beliefs can be best supported by examples. I learned lessons from
being a professional in the Forensic Engineering business similar to the lessons learned
while employed in industry. The bottom line was to always practice the Golden Rule,
"Do Unto Others As you Would Have Them Do Unto You." Sounds so simple but oh so
difficult to practice in a work environment, unless you develop a personal mind set
consistent with its principles. I will now share some of the best advice on Ethical
Professional Behavior that I have ever received.
About 5 years into my original engineering career, I was observed by a senior Q/C
manager as I was being pressured by a project manager, on the Apollo space program, to
sign off on a discrepant part that was part of the hardware that would eventually land on
the moon. I refused to sign the paperwork and the project manager stormed off in a huff.
The Q/C manager approached me and gave me a congratulating handshake for my stand but I
told him that I was just doing my job. He then shared the following advice with me to help
me defuse any and all future ethical dilemmas concerning the acceptability of a product.
He said, "Ask yourself the following question. Would you allow your spouse or
another member of your family to use the product in question without any reservations
whatsoever? If you cannot answer that question with an immediate 'Yes', then you have no
business signing off on that product for a stranger to use."
It's very easy to see the connection to the Golden Rule, but this example makes its
application very simple because it places individuals into the position of always becoming
a personal stakeholder. When this happens you are most likely going to make the
proper professional decision.
This is exactly what former Navy Admiral Rickover did when he contracted with Electric
Boat Company in Connecticut to design and build the Navy's Nuclear Submarines. The top
program managers and some workers were selected to ride on the maiden voyage of each
submarine. This was the way the Admiral insured top quality design and manufacture of
submarines. He simply made those responsible for the program act professionally by making
them personal stakeholders by placing them personally in harms way should they end up
doing poor quality work. To my knowledge, the Navy received top quality hardware as a
Now let's examine a shameful but very real practice in our commercial marketplace.
How often have you placed your trust in the many National oversight agencies, like
CPSC, or national consensus Specs, like ANSI, or our airline oversight agency, called the
FAA, or national Test labs, like UL? If you are like the average consumer of commercially
offered products, even if you are an engineer, you place some degree of faith in approval
statements by some of these typical consumer protection bodies. However, in our
excessive profit driven and litigious industrial society we are continuously exposed to
the design, manufacture and marketing of defective products, many of which meet all the
specification requirements of the typical organizations mentioned.
During my Forensic Engineering practice I was exposed to some horrific examples
concerning unsafe products and defective product specifications with many such products
having ANSI and/or UL approved labels and available for sale to any consumer. Again,
the best way to illustrate how serious a problem we have, both within and outside our
country, is to use specific examples of product lines. Before I give the examples, it is
important to understand that the root cause of the problem can be traced to professionals
not taking their responsibility to act as ethical professionals serious enough. This
results in typical subordinate capitulation to the implied threat that they must be
"Blindly Loyal to all organizational wishes, or Else they Will Suffer Career
How many of you have ever considered a common freestanding household stove as a
dangerous product since it has the UL approved sticker prominently displayed on the stove
and literature. When the oven door is in the fully opened (horizontal) position it takes
only about 42 pounds placed at the outer edge of the oven door to cause immediate tipping.
This has been a known problem since the 1960's and still persists to this day because the
manufacturers and UL have no personal stake in making the required changes to eliminate
the problem. The UL specification requires the oven door tip test to pass an
applied static load of 75 pounds placed at the center of the door without tipping. Does
anyone think that a child climbing onto the fully opened oven door to take a peek at what
Mom is cooking for supper will only apply a static load at the centerline of the door?
That is a ridiculous assumption to make even for an adult applying a load to the open oven
door. I had two such cases. One involving an adult and another involving a 4 year old
child and both were barbecued by hot food being prepared on the top burners because the
Even though the stove and specification defects had been exposed during litigations a
number of times over many years, the manufacturer ignored the normally used prioritized
list for the elimination of product defects. The priority list to fix any defective
product is as follows:
- Redesign the product to eliminate the defect,
- If it is not possible to redesign, then design a safety guard to protect the user,
- If it is not possible to redesign or guard then as a minimum warn the user of the known
danger. In the attempt to maximize profits, the stove manufacturers jumped directly to
number 3 because it is by far the cheapest, but it doesn't solve the real problem. There
are warning stickers on the oven door that picture the stove tipping danger and warnings
in the manual about stove tipping but how does a young child who cannot yet read come to
understand the danger? There is also a sheet metal bracket supplied with each stove which
captures one of the rear leveling feet and that is supposed to be installed by either the
stove owner or professional installer to prevent tipping.
However, when I called and questioned workers at several appliance stores about the
anti-tip brackets supplied with the stoves, they didn't have a clue about their usage.
Additionally, the case concerning the child happened with a stove that was
purchased as a used stove in the secondary appliance market and it didn't come with either
an anti-tip bracket or a manual. So how was the user to know about the stove tipping
One manufacturer claimed that they had spent around a million dollars trying to solve
the problem without success. However, I never have much faith in that statement since I
redesigned the oven door hinge within two weeks to eliminate the problem and actually
built the new design and it worked as expected. All I did was modify to design of the
existing hinge to add another cam action so that the redesigned hinge would cause the oven
door to collapse to the floor when excessive load was applied. The redesign did not affect
the functionality or the operation of the stove or the oven door. Both cases were settled
before trial without depositions after opposing counsel was presented with a video showing
the testing and success of the redesigned oven door hinge.
There are many more examples of common household products but space will not allow more
than a short mention of some products and their defects. Handheld drills with trigger lock
switches that have UL approved labels: The UL spec states that the trigger lock switch
shall not be capable of being inadvertently actuated, but on many of these drills the
trigger lock switch (usually a button) can be inadvertently actuated causing severe injury
to hands, fingers or arms.
Popular extension ladders used for work around the house are considerably different in
load capacity and safety than their industrial equivalents, yet they both are designed and
tested to ANSI specs. Don't ever buy or use a type III, 200 pound capacity household
extension ladder with unsymmetrical "channel section" side rails and
unsymmetrical metal safety shoes having vinyl anti-slip pads, unless you have a wish to
risk severe injury from the ladder slipping out from under you. Only consider buying and
using an extension ladder that has, as a minimum, a 250 to 300 pound capacity, with
symmetrical RUBBER safety shoes and ideally has side rails in the shape of an
"I-beam" or rectangular tube sections.
One last defective product is a common household step stool in the shape of an inverted
bucket. The step stool is strong enough but is unstable when any slight side loading is
applied in the horizontal plane of the top step, usually caused by a quick lateral
movement or reaching outside an imaginary cylinder the diameter of the top step. Since the
sidewall slope is only 4 degrees it is only slightly better than actually using a
cylindrical bucket. Only consider buying and using a step stool with at least 15 degree
sidewalls, similar to the spec criteria for the front slope of stepladders. Any lesser
slope could result in serious injury from tipping.
These are but a few of the products on the commercial market with known defects which
have a reasonable probability of causing injury. My best advice is to go back to two well
known sayings, "You get what you pay for" (don't always buy the cheapest), and
"Buyer Beware." Don't expect the manufacturers to inform you sufficiently about
the dangers of using their products, except for the minimum requirements normally used in
their attempt to cover themselves against successful lawsuits.
If subordinate professionals in large numbers would muster the courage to act as
ethical professionals, using the recommendations stated herein, then many defective
products would disappear from the consumer market in the long term.
It is hoped that this information will be both helpful and also provide a basis for
group discussions within the IEEE Consultants' Network.
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