IEEE Ethics: Significant Milestones Over the Past 40 Years

Accomplishments included committees, an award, and a hotline

30 May 2018

This is the second in a series of posts about IEEE’s current ethics policies and practices and to what extent they support IEEE’s “Advancing Technology for Humanity” tagline.

Many of today’s IEEE members are of such an age that they did not get to experience the modern eras of ethics development programs for engineers. IEEE’s first code of conduct was adopted in 1912 by one of its predecessor societies, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), and it remained essentially unchanged until a 1950 update. This post begins with highlights of IEEE’s modernization of ethics policies and practices.

PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES ADDED TO IEEE CONSTITUTION

More than 80 percent of IEEE’s members voted “yes” in 1972 to amend the organization’s constitution to add professional activities—programs that would enhance their professional and ethical growth and career advancement. That led to modernizing IEEE’s code of ethics in 1974, and it set the stage for 20 years of pro-ethics programs.

It was the first time such activities were included since the founding in 1884 of the AIEE. The organization in 1912 adopted its Code of Principles of Professional Conduct. The code dealt with such points as disclosing factors that might endanger the public, rejecting bribery, and avoiding conflicts of interest.

AIEE in 1950 incorporated into its code of ethics the Canons of Ethics of the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development. The canons included principles concerned with professional life and employment, relationships between clients and employers, and relationships with the public.

When the AIEE and IRE merged in 1963 to form IEEE, one of the new organization’s first acts was to issue its Canons of Ethics of Engineers, the forerunner of today’s IEEE Code of Ethics.

IEEE ESTABLISHES AN ETHICS LEGAL PRINCIPLE

In 1972 three IEEE members who were employed as engineers by San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) found safety discrepancies in the design of the automatic train control system and brought it to their supervisor’s attention. Getting no results, they reported their concerns to upper management. That action led to their firing, and they sued the company for damages.

IEEE’s Committee on Social Implications of Technology, led by Member Stephen Unger, conducted its own investigation and urged IEEE to intervene in their lawsuit. (Unger is also a member of the Concerned Ethics Volunteers.) In early 1975, IEEE’s attorneys filed an amicus curiae brief, which addressed the duty of engineers to practice ethically in accordance with established codes of ethics. The legal brief presented the argument that engineers, under the “public policy exception rule,” have an implied contract to the effect that they have an obligation to practice ethically. To be terminated for so doing would be a violation of this rule. While not a precedent, the brief established IEEE’s commitment for the first time to supporting its members when their employment was jeopardized for upholding the IEEE Code of Ethics—which led to an out-of-court settlement. The three BART engineers later were the first recipients of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology’s Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest.

MEMBER CONDUCT COMMITTEE FORMED

In 1978 IEEE formed the Member Conduct Committee (MCC). (Three members of the Concerned Ethics Volunteers were part of the IEEE United States Activities Board Task Force that drafted the original procedures to govern the new committee.) The MCC was empowered to discipline members who violated its Code of Ethics and to provide advice and ethical support to members whose employment was being placed in jeopardy for striving to uphold the code.

Also in 1978, IEEE approved supporting Member Virginia Mary Edgerton, an engineer who had been fired for striving to correct degradation in the New York City 911 system as a result of a new police dispatch system being designed. Edgerton was the second recipient of the Barus Award.

Ten years later Member Salvador Castro found a design defect in one of his company’s infant incubators and tried to get it corrected. The company refused to fix the flaw, and Castro was fired. He appealed to IEEE by way of its new ethics hotline. The MCC accepted his case, and the IEEE Board of Directors voted to provide him with ethical support and to enter his case when it reached the courts. He also received the Barus Award.

ETHICS COMMITTEE FORMED

Nearly 20 years after the MCC was established, IEEE finally formed its first ethics committee. During a two- to three-year period in the mid 1990s, it was instrumental in getting IEEE to approve several new ethics practices. One required those renewing their membership to agree to abide by the Code of Ethics as a condition of membership. Another was publishing articles about ethics topics in The Institute.

But the most important new activity was the establishment of the ethics hotline. It was staffed by IEEE volunteers at no cost to the organization. Volunteers would handle ethics inquiries in their areas of specialty. For example, when Salvador Castro asked for support, Member Mal Benjamin, a medical engineer, met with him, evaluated his request, and concurred that it had merit. The committee forwarded his request to the MCC, which agreed and persuaded the Board of Directors to support him.

Another initiative, which was not launched, was to set up an ethics support fund. Contributions would go toward providing financial assistance to members to help them resolve conflicts with employers or clients.

CONFLICT-RESOLUTION SERVICE PROPOSED

In 1998 Martha Sloan, the MCC chair who was also a former IEEE president, proposed establishing what she called an ethics conflict-resolution service. She envisioned the MCC would provide advice, education, a board to hear cases, and mediation.

The service also would establish a relationship with the Ethics Officers Association. The EOA, founded in 1992, is the professional association exclusively for managers of ethics, compliance, and business conduct programs.

The MCC prepared a proposal for the service. It was intended to go to the Board for approval but was never approved, as later that year, IEEE stopped all ethics support. (My next post will cover that dark period, in which we still find ourselves more than 20 years later.) The IEEE Concerned Ethics Volunteers then came into being to get the original ethics advice and ethical support re-established.

For more information on this topic, check out the IEEE Ethics History Repository on the Engineering and Technology Wiki.

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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