When Engineering Crosses an Ethical Line

April 6, 2017
What do you do when management types conceal design issues that are blatant violations, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences?

One day, fairly early on in my career, I was faced with a dilemma. I was asked to deliberately compromise a design I was custom engineering for a client.

This was an extremely large system, composed of an array of interlinked equipment. It was subject to state and federal regulations, as well as the whims of insurance companies. After the system was installed and the “on” switch was flipped, people were going to rely on it to protect them from injury and death.

On this day, I was confronted by a cabal of managers who were asking me to remove several lawfully mandated pieces of equipment from the design. The reason I was being asked to do this was not forthcoming. I was given a vague answer about the equipment in question not being needed.

However, from a couple of overheard conversations, I discovered that these men thought the equipment in question took too much from the bottom line. I was never privy to the exact figures, but the markup on some of my employer’s equipment was already 200% to 300%.

These managers were willing to risk the lives of people they didn’t know, but who they were paid to protect, for just a little bit more profit. 

Several years later, I was a peripheral witness to a similar situation.

Concealing the Terrible Truth

A sister company of the one I was employed at manufactured a sensor that filled a niche need of my industry.

Simply put, the design of this sensor was bad. The tolerance stack-up was completely disregarded, and the engineer who designed the sensor wasn’t remotely qualified to do so. During the production of the sensor, failure rates where astonishingly high.

Management knew about the under-qualified engineer, and they knew about the high failure rate in production. They deliberately didn’t record production defects in an attempt the hide the issue.

A large fraction of the sensors that made it to the field were just a harsh word away from catastrophic failure. When the sensors failed, it was a quiet little death with nothing to announce their passing. This was a serious problem because they were being relied on to prevent an extremely dangerous situation.

The result of all of this questionable behavior? The sensors failed, and some very expensive equipment got destroyed in spectacular fashion. During these equipment failures, several people’s lives were put in serious jeopardy. To my knowledge, no one was harmed, but that was just dumb luck. 

At this point, myself and a few fellow engineers were brought in to investigate why things had gone so fantastically wrong. We discovered the cover-ups and the shoddy engineering almost immediately.

After submitting our findings, the managers who concealed the failures were fired. The engineer who designed the sensor was fired, in addition to several other employees who were determined to be only slightly complicit. The company had to issue a recall on millions of dollars’ worth of the already distributed sensors. They were also liable for the damages caused by the failed device. I never found out if legal action was taken against the managers and employees. Nor did I ever discover if legal action was taken against the company itself.


These stories are meant to entertain but, if not already evident, they are cautionary as well. Over the course of your career, you may never be confronted by or witness such blatant ethics violations. Not all incidents involving compromised ethics are so overt.

To a greater or lesser degree, we as engineers design the world around all of us. We bring the trappings of technology to our civilization. We have an ethical obligation to try to make sure that the results of our efforts are safe.

Failures are inevitable, and that is a regrettable fact. When we allow them to happen because of greed and ambition, then we have failed as engineers. No one gets an exemption of this point. It doesn’t matter if you are designing fasteners, or wire harnesses, or plastic missiles for toy robots. Everything we touch has the potential to cause very far-reaching consequences.

I am sure you want to know how that first story ended. Well, in short, I ignored the “suggestions” of those managers and kept my design the way it was. The way it should be. I was, of course, very afraid of losing my job, though. I was also angry, frustrated, and disgusted.

Up to this point in my life, I had never witnessed anything quite like this. I had seen hate and I had seen laziness and carelessness. I am certainly guilty of at least the last two myself. But this…this bizarre admixture of confidence and bland disregard. It wasn’t evil in the traditional sense. It was evil, via indifference.

I decided that, if I were confronted, I would quit, rather than give in. However, that situation never presented itself. Very shortly after the incident, those managers all simultaneously left the company to go work for a competitor. I kept my job, and the fallout from their leaving is another story altogether.

About the Author

Cabe Atwell

Engineer, Machinist, Maker, Writer. A graduate Electrical Engineer actively plying his expertise in the industry and at his company, Gunhead. When not designing/building, he creates a steady torrent of projects and content in the media world. Many of his projects and articles are online at element14 & SolidSmack, industry-focused work at EETimes & EDN, and offbeat articles at Make Magazine. Currently, you can find him hosting webinars and contributing to Penton’s Electronic Design and Machine Design.

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