The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
United States of America

PROFESSIONALISM

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 Professionalism.

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 industrial setting.

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:

  1. 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 Client's interests.
  2. All timeis measured portal to portal and billed at the regular hourly rate.
  3. 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.
  4. Retainer will be credited against final bill.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 parties.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 Contractor.
  10. 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 result.

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 Damage."

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 stoves tipped.

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:

  1. Redesign the product to eliminate the defect,
  2. If it is not possible to redesign, then design a safety guard to protect the user,
  3. 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 danger?

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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Last Update: Jan 7, 1999

Copyright 1999 The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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