An ethical groundswell

Sylvia Porter

September 25, 1990|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1989 Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

During the buyout furor of last decade, morality in business reached a low point. Yet, while companies, instead of building themselves, were buying other companies or perishing in the effort, a different and opposing force got under way and became a groundswell.

It started down in the ranks, far removed from the glass towers of corporate officers, with the people who create what corporate officers buy and sell.

It's a surprising new phenomenon called technical ethics.

Technical ethics is something you should know about, because it may determine whether a company whose stock you own will stride boldly forward into the future, or spend its money -- the money of its investors -- in debilitating lawsuits.

The technical ethics groundswell really began four and a half years ago when the space shuttle was destroyed due to engineering problems that were already well known to the space agency and to its contractors. Investigations determined that engineers who knew there was great danger in flying the shuttle had kept quiet for business and political reasons.

Following the destruction of the Challenger, many engineers argued that they were just following orders in remaining silent about known flaws. But others, angry that red flags they had raised had been ignored, began to squawk loudly. It may be good for one's job if one toes the political line, they said, but there must be an ethics standard -- a point at which the concerns exceed the desires of the employer.

The result has been a new concentration on business and professional ethics in many of the nation's schools.

Largely unheralded is the fact that companies themselves have begun to hire ethics consultants.

The problem is a complicated one, according to those who have faced it. Engineers and other technical professionals, accustomed to unwavering equations and issues that are clearly black-and-white, often are little versed in the realities of managing a project in today's competitive business environment.

"The engineers would like to take forever and go over budget every minute," says a manager at a major aerospace company. "They don't understand that conditions cannot be perfect all the time."

"They don't realize that there's another company out there that will say it can do the same, or better, for less. Whether the company is telling the truth is not always considered when contracts are awarded."

The engineers retort that there is no way that a company can justify doing something that it knows to be wrong.

"If you're doing something that is slipshod or unsafe, then what you're doing is wrong," says Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who attempted to prevent the launch of Challenger. "There may be a policy of 'we don't want to hear it,' but that doesn't reduce a company's responsibility."

Boisjoly, who saw his aerospace career come to an end after he was branded a "whistle-blower," is working on a book about technical ethics.

And in a range of technical fields, awareness of the problem is growing. Engineers, technicians and other specialists have let it be known that they don't want to be caught between doing a good job and serving their employers. Companies are learning that they can become extremely vulnerable to the failure of projects through policies that turn a deaf ear to the concerns of "whistle-blowers."

Both employers and employees are discovering, though, that a willingness to repair the situation is not necessarily enough. Just because a question has been asked does not mean that an answer will be found.

As a consequence, a new field of ethics is being created.

Clearly, an eye toward doing the right thing is becoming a higher priority of both technical professionals and the companies that employ them. It's a welcome change.

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