Joseph Viola
Joseph M. Viola, P.E.
If your parents were anything like mine, the phrase, "when in doubt do the right thing" still reverberates in your skull, too. Repetition reinforcing as it does, the message has stayed with me all through the years. I send a heartfelt, albeit belated, "Thanks folks!" to my parents. I guess the foundations of ethics must be laid during childhood and into adolescence. These values and that sense of right and wrong instilled early on are the very core of ethics, and there's no reason we can't continue to build upon that foundation throughout our careers.

We all bring our knowledge, experience and talents as civil engineers to our desks or construction sites each morning and endeavor to put these traits to good use for the betterment of those who use the facilities we design, construct, and/or own/operate. Beyond that we have one critical trait. This essential attribute cannot be measured in GPAs, years on the job or contributions made and is exceedingly fragile… our reputation. One brief misstep can undo decades of building that reputation. In the wake of many people in the business world who put their own financial gain above the good of others and forgot the simple tenet above, it is clear to see the effects of their unethical behavior. Reputations have tumbled irreparably and major corporations have been left in ruins.

So, on a professional and personal level, what do we need to do to maintain that reputation we worked so hard to build? I’ll offer ten suggestions.
  1. We need to always be true to our word. Trust is shattered by dishonesty.
  2. We need to treat others with dignity, respect and understanding. Follow the "Golden Rule."
  3. We need to be fair and honest in all our dealings. Keep commitments – they are not optional.
  4. We need to respect others’ property, be it material, intellectual, or otherwise. Stealing is a crime.
  5. We need to be mindful of potential and perceived conflicts of interest, even the slightest whisper of impropriety.
  6. We need to avoid demeaning the abilities of others. That tears at the fabric of the whole profession.
  7. We need to accept responsibility when it is ours.
  8. We need to acknowledge when/if certain assignments are not related closely enough to our field of expertise and pass on them.
  9. We need to set an example of ethical behavior to society at large.
  10. We need to avoid rationalization. No talking ourselves into doing what we want to do if it's in conflict with what we should do.
ASCE's Past-President Bill Henry has brought ethics back to the headlines, focusing on corruption in global engineering/construction, and has been named one of ENR's Top 25 Newsmakers for 2005. He has touched a nerve when he quotes the huge financial toll corruption has taken on society. To help maintain ethical use of our non-profit organizations funds, ASCE adopted the Sarbanes-Oxley law even though we have no legal obligation to be bound thereto. Our local Met Section now needs an annual independent audit performed, and budgets are being scrutinized more than ever as each new budgetary year begins. One correct perception of Civil Engineers is that we are sticklers for detail and will go to great lengths to be precise. This precision has helped build our profession's reputation for honesty and integrity, one common thread through each of the above. While I have not seen our audit, I understand the only adverse finding has been some bounced checks we have not been able to collect on.

While the above is my own take on ethics presented in a greatly simplified manner, nobody can deny that there will always be gray areas. For help along those sometimes blurred edges between right and wrong, ASCE and most employers have several resources available. ASCE has put together a useful reference on the subject worth perusing, with references to other resources and hotlines they provide. This useful document is available free online at the following URL:

Let's continue to build on our profession's reputation for honesty and ethical behavior… and when in doubt, do the right thing.

Joseph M. Viola, P.E.
President, ASCE Met Section