Canadian Consulting Engineer

“But The Client Pays The Bills”

W ith the sentencing of Garth Drabinsky to seven years in jail in August, yet another high-flying public figure was brought low due to following corrupt business practices. But the likes of Drabinsky,...

August 1, 2009   By Bronwen Parsons

With the sentencing of Garth Drabinsky to seven years in jail in August, yet another high-flying public figure was brought low due to following corrupt business practices. But the likes of Drabinsky, Conrad Black and Martha Stewart don’t act alone. They need the help of professional accountants to manipulate their books and show them how to get around the laws.

Professionals are supposed to have the highest ethical standards, which of course applies to engineers. The trouble is that life is complex, and businesses need to compete to survive, so it’s not always easy to keep entirely to the high moral ground.

This is not to suggest that consulting engineers would stoop to illegal practices or advise clients to do so, but it can be all too easy to acquiesce to clients whose projects are not the best solution for society at large.

The conflicts consulting engineers sometimes face came up at Consulting Engineers of Ontario’s conference in Ottawa in June. Doris Dumais, director of approvals at the Ontario Ministry of Environment, was on a panel discussing how consulting engineers could wield more influence over public policies. She suggested that they might be better heard if the Ministry was able to feel that the consultants were their partners in protecting the environment and developing the economy. Why didn’t she feel they were partners already? To paraphrase, Dumais said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around the table with consultants discussing a project’s impacts and the consultants have said “We agree with you, but the client pays the bills.” Implicitly Dumais was asking consulting engineers, Are you willing to stand up to your clients in favour of protecting the environment?

Fellow panelist Dr. John Boyd, P. Eng. followed the same theme at the end of his talk. A principal with Golder Associates in Toronto, Boyd is currently president of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC). He said engineers should “refuse to do dumb things for clients,” and they should be willing to stand up and explain to the public what’s wrong. He advised, “pick your projects” and “pick your clients” carefully. A few years ago, he explained, Golder decided to drop some clients who were following dubious practices. When a few of these phoned to ask Golder why, “amazingly,” he said, in many cases these companies said they would try to become better clients.

Ethics and integrity also came up during an interview with Peter Buckland, P. Eng. of Vancouver for the Human Edge story (page 42). Buckland explained that years ago a construction company asked his partner to provide advance information about a project, information that would have helped the company get the work. The company also happened to be an important client of Buckland and Taylor, but Peter Taylor refused the request. At first the clients were upset, but eventually they came around and respected their consultants all the more for not crossing the ethical line.

Doing the right thing nearly always involves a short-term sacrifice, but it can eventually lead to greater rewards. As Boyd said, “We should not undermine our influence. Consulting engineers bring a huge amount of credibility to a project and are in a strong position to lead.”


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