Canadian Consulting Engineer

Whistleblowers

During my years of teaching engineering ethics at the university level, I have been continually peppered with questions from students about how they should have responded to what they felt were unethi...

June 1, 2005   By Marc A. Rosen, Ph.D., P.Eng.

During my years of teaching engineering ethics at the university level, I have been continually peppered with questions from students about how they should have responded to what they felt were unethical practices within companies where they held summer jobs or internship or co-op placements. Some notable examples that stand out in my mind:

* One student, who was working over the summer with a road construction firm, asked me how he should deal with his supervisor who had told him to proceed with construction even though it was clear that unapproved changes in the design materials were being made at the construction site, and that the new materials were of a lower quality than the original design had specified. Being the most junior person in the group, he felt powerless to do anything, and felt that he would be “blackballed” by others in the field if he did report what was happening to anyone.

* Another student, during an internship placement with an IT company, felt that some original ideas she had developed had been “stolen” by others in the company who had learned of them during weekly update meetings. The ideas were then presented by these individuals to company executives, without giving any credit whatsoever to the intern. She wanted to know what she could do in such a situation to ensure she received appropriate recognition, without being viewed as a complainer or troublemaker.

Many students clearly recognize the dangers they face in their future careers by revealing unethical practices. And they are usually quite disenchanted to learn that the protections are minimal or non-existent. Students, consequently, often conclude that the request for them to come forward and report unethical behaviour is a sham. Without protections, they argue, they wouldn’t dare speak up and shouldn’t be asked to do so.

This view was reinforced at a conference I attended recently where several sessions were devoted to ethics in engineering. I met a professional engineer employed by the U.S. Department of Energy who argued the very point made by my students. He said he has quite a reputation in the U.S. federal government and gave me his card, which listed his title as “Safety Engineer and Prevailing Whistleblower.” He argued vehemently that whistleblower protection must be provided by the appropriate agencies — be they licensing bodies, government agencies or others –and be backed up by action if talk of professional ethics is to be anything more than just talk.

Hence, I was pleased to learn of the legislation introduced on March 22 last year by the federal government to protect and encourage whistleblowers in the public service and crown corporations. That step is, I believe, long overdue and could help engineers facing ethical dilemmas by setting an example of how such problems need to be dealt with firmly, explicitly and systematically in any organization or institution.

The proposed “Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act,” Bill C-25, protects public servants from being demoted, fired or otherwise disciplined for calling attention to corruption, mismanagement or other unethical behaviour. The legislation would create a public service integrity commissioner, reporting to a Minister.

The proposed legislation is not perfect. Critics say it is too restrictive in how whistleblowers are allowed to disclose, and too narrow in scope because it does not cover Ministers’ staff or bureaucrats involved in issues of national security, such as some members of CSIS, the RCMP and the armed forces. Some complain that the public service integrity commissioner to be created through the legislation should report to Parliament rather than a Minister.

An ironic weakness of the proposed legislation is that it clearly is motivated by the sponsorship scandal in which the Liberal government now finds itself embroiled. Nevertheless, the legislation has many far-reaching and beneficial implications.

Some of the bill’s key elements are:

* A statement of values. A code of conduct and a charter of guiding values would be created for public sector employees.

* A disclosure mechanism. Each chief executive officer in the federal public sector would have to establish an internal disclosure mechanism and appoint a senior officer to receive disclosures.

* An investigation procedure. The senior officer who receives disclosures would investigate the complaint.

* Protection from reprisal. Public servants who feel they have suffered a reprisal could complain to the commissioner and, in some instances, to tribunals.

One could argue that such legislation shouldn’t be necessary, that it should go without saying that attacks on those who reveal inappropriate practices should not be allowed and should be punishable. However, if explicit statements of protection are needed — and they apparently are given past incidents of reprisals and the reluctance of many who witness unethical behaviour to come forward — then the proposed bill serves as a useful model. Clear and explicit policies and values in any agency, be it public or private, combined with matching actions are often the best way to foster ethical behaviour.

Of course, I’m not talking here about supporting whistleblowers who behave unreasonably. Whistleblowing is far too potentially damaging to be undertaken lightly and without full and careful thought. Appropriately, the proposed bill protects the responsible whistleblower who takes all possible steps to resolve and correct inappropriate activities before going outside the organization. Those who would exploit the protections being offered whistleblowers, by going public with concerns before trying to resolve them via proper channels, should not expect protection.

This bill supports this idea by recommending that a whistleblower complain to a supervisor before going to the new public service integrity commissioner. The bill also allows whistleblowers to speak through other channels but under limited conditions, such as if the whistleblower believes another public servant is about to commit a serious offence under an act of Parliament or do something that creates an imminent and serious danger to life. But it is unclear to what extent people who go outside established procedures, by talking to the media for example, would be protected.

Certainly, the bill creates the perception that ethical behaviour is valued and sets a good example for business and other organizations. These are benefits that I know students will appreciate.

The proposed law certainly makes it easier for me to promote our course on ethics and law for professionals at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, a course which is required for all engineering students. The proposed legislation, taken in concert with our core values of integrity, honesty, respect, dignity and accountability, makes it easier to instill ethical behaviour.

For members of many professions where upholding ethical standards is a requirement of licensure the bill is particulary important. Professional engineers in each Canadian province and territory are bound to follow a code of ethics, which includes not just encouragement to blow the whistle on serious unethical behaviour when all other channels fail, but an obligation to do so.

I applaud the introduction of this legislation as a key step in protecting the ethical engineer and as an example for others in the public and private sectors to follow. Should the legislation become law, I think my students will be applauding as well.

Marc A. Rosen is dean of engineering and applied science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, the first new university in Ontario in almost 40 years, and past president of the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering.


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