Do IEEE’s Ethics Policies and Practices Support Its Tagline, ‘Advancing Technology for Humanity?’

The Concerned Ethics Volunteers group wants the organization to uphold its own governance documents

2 May 2018

This is the first in a series of posts about IEEE’s current ethics policies and practices.

I’d like to inform IEEE members about two rights of theirs denied them for nearly 20 years: ethics advice and ethical support. The denial has occurred in spite of an abundance of higher-level governance materials that contradict this practice.

According to the IEEE constitution, you, the members, have the authority to correct the problem. This post is a factual account that covers the history, policies, practices, and efforts made to correct this practice, albeit unsuccessfully.

I was one of the authors of the charter of what later would become IEEE Ethics Policies and Practices, which governed the IEEE Member Conduct Committee, and has been in effect for 40 years. These policies and practices were taken away when MCC was replaced by the current Ethics and Member Conduct Committee.

Since February 1978, IEEE has had in its corporate governance bylaws, policies, procedures, code of ethics, and membership renewal agreement language about ethics advice and ethical support for its members. Since the establishment of MCC, these were used to discipline members and to provide them with guidance and support. In these governance documents, MCC was—and the current EMCC still is—empowered to provide two functions: discipline members for violating the code of ethics and provide members with advice (from inquiries) and ethical support when their employment is in jeopardy for upholding the code. These services are on the books today, but they are being ignored.

Items 1.3 and 1.4 of the EMCC’s operations manual cover how members are to deal with disputes with nonmembers, trade unions, and their employer. The IEEE Concerned Ethics Volunteers (CEV), which I belong to, believe the language in these sections has been used to deny ethics advice and ethical support to members. This began informally around 2000, but formally since 2004. The CEV is now challenging what has been done.

The CEV believes the EMCC may have been misapplying part of Item 1.3, which reads:

“Neither the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee nor any of its members shall solicit or otherwise invite complaints, nor shall they provide advice to individuals”

The operative word individuals refers to nonmembers, not IEEE members. This word has been misused to deny ethics advice to members.

Secondly, in Item 1.4, it reads:

“The IEEE shall not engage in collective bargaining on such matters as salaries, wages, benefits, and working conditions, customarily dealt with by labor unions.”

“The Ethics and Member Conduct Committee shall not be involved in employee-employer disputes.”

Using this statement to deny ethical support by the EMCC is not valid, because Item 1.4 deals only with trade unions, not professional or ethical disputes. The EMCC has been using this statement to deny support for far too long.

For the past year, efforts by the CEV to get IEEE Corporate Governance staff to justify its actions have been unsuccessful. When I asked them in October 2015 about the restriction, I was informed in writing that “it applied to both trade union and professional disputes.” To date, the source of this claim has never been determined. Repeated requests have been unsuccessful.

The CEV was formed last year to address and remove the two ethics restrictions, which have been practiced for the past 20 years. This blue-ribbon group consists of two life members, four life fellows, plus one senior member, an IEEE past president, former ethics and EMCC chairs, and members of the MCC. Some of the group’s members wrote the original MCC formation documents in 1977. The CEV reviewed the documents and the EMCC Ops Manual and concluded Items 1.3 and 1.4 have been misapplied by the EMCC. The CEV provided its own interpretations, and we believe the IEEE Board can restore these important ethics services by simply invalidating Items 1.3 and 1.4 and resorting to the 40-year-old corporate-approved governance documents.

QUESTIONS TO BE ANSWERED

While Corporate Governance staff informed the CEV what the restrictive practices were, the group was never informed of the source or the authority that approved their implementation. Therefore, the following questions need to be answered.

Did any IEEE Board formally approve restricting ethics advice and ethical support from the members? If so, which Board approved this, and what was its justification?

Were IEEE members notified? If so when, and by what means?

What documents were used to record this policy other than Items 1.3 and 1.4 in the EMCC Operations Manual?

If Items 1.3 and 1.4 were used to approve this practice, why were they allowed to override 20 to 40 years of approved corporate governance bylaws, policies, procedures and the c odeof ethics?

If not, what then justified instituting these restrictions? Was this practice just an extension of the shutting down of all ethics advice and support services that occurred in the late 1990s?

Does the current Board plan to reinstitute ethics advice and ethical support to IEEE members? If not, what is the justification?

Life Senior Member Walter L. Elden is the editor for the Concerned Ethics Volunteers. He can be reached via w.elden@ieee.org.

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