Engineering Ethics – Replacing an Engineer

Sometimes we find ourselves asking the question, ” what should be the best way to respond in this situation” or thinking. “This doesn’t feel right, am I being persuaded or led to act in a wrong way? What should I do?

Ethics is the new big deal. From bribery to whistleblowing from acting honestly and honorably to acting for the public good, the public expect us as professional engineers to behave ethically. Every profession has it “modus of operandi” and it is expected that all engineers should and would be bounded by the ethics of the engineering profession. This post looks extensively at one of the ethical issues that posses a dilemma for many engineers, it concerns replacing an incumbent engineer on a project.

Replacing an Engineer

Everyone welcome new opportunities to provide both technical and professional service. This can happen in several ways, from a client winning the competitive bid or as part of a growing relationship with a client or even by mere recommendations. At this stage, we are eager to start providing our services: Who wouldn’t be?. However there is a need to rein in our natural tendency to begin the process. Engineering ethics require us to consider thoroughly, the terms and conditions of this appointment, to understand what is to be provided and to avoid any possible breach.

Typically, this should include a review of the draft contract document to ensure all terms and conditions as well as any liabilities that may arise is fully covered. Appropriate arrangement and channels for dispute resolutions should also be included and balanced between both parties. Whilst these considerations are very important, the need to be extra careful and be aware of any ethical issues connected with the appointment is even far more important. Winning the competitive bid often leads to excitements, excitement which could sometimes lead to any ethical concerns being completely ignored and overlooked.

As earlier posited, replacing an incumbent engineer is one area of engineering ethics that continues to pose a dilemma. The need for replacing an engineer could arise for several reasons. These may be as a result of lack of experience arising from a change in the initial brief, a commercial dispute between client and engineer, a design company ceasing to have the required skill and resources or as result of the incumbent engineer being incompetent. Should any of the listed/unlisted scenarios be the case, there is an incumbent engineer, and the first line of action is to establish the state of their contract. Whether they are still actively appointed or whether their contract has been terminated.

Where the contract still appears to be active, what seems to be the right thing to do, is to reject or defer the offer of appointment until the above requirement is fully settled. This also requires the client to have agreed to a resolution process with the original engineer and not necessarily to have only settled just outstanding matters. While the above scenario relating replacement is pretty straightforward, the same cannot be said concerning issues concerning checking/review of jobs done by other engineers. This can be very complex, the initial recommendation would be for the original engineer and the checking engineer to communicate freely and the checking engineer should report findings without any bias.

However, a particular situation that can produce great unease is when a potential client request a confidential review of an engineer’s job without terminating the appointment of the original engineer. One instance would be a design and build contractor seeking to reduce cost of the original design. The contractor may want the original designer to be unaware of the second option or opinion. In this circumstance the “checking engineer” must insist on the recommendations made by the original engineer remain unchanged. Also, he should ensure that all relevant documentation and correspondence between the potential client and original engineer is made available.

This is likely a difficult requirement to satisfy because without unrestricted access to good information some details relevant to the design could be omitted which could adversely affect any second opinion. In this circumstance it would be difficult from an ethical point of view to accept the appointment.

Job Liabilities

Once all issues bordering on replacing an engineer has been resolved, the next quandary revolves around liability for any job already carried out. The extents will depend on the stage that the original job has reached. If this replacement took place at the very start of works, it should be easy to resolve, than having to adopt an already finished design.

As the new engineer, you will have to check the incumbent engineer design, if not for anything, but to form a basis upon which to continue and eventually complete the design process. The IstructE code of conduct also has some recommendations, on this activity, particularly (section 7.1). This stipulates that the first point of contact should be the original engineer to obtain clarification prior to reporting to the client. Once the design has been completed or in an instance where the job is to be completed, the question of who bears responsibility for the job must be resolved. This requires a carefully worded clause within the contract, and an advise of your indemnity/insurance broker should be sought.

However, what is likely obtainable is that, the incumbent engineer would not accept any liability, as the new engineer would probably introduce a change or adopt a modified design. Thus, the new engineer should assume they are liable for the whole design. Even in few occasional cases where the incumbent engineer accepts liability, there may still be potential issues with regards to statutory liability. For example, a statutory liability might arise by reason of a duty to warn. This duty would arise, because a competent engineer is expected to be able to identify warnings of bad design or where elements are likely to be defective.

Other Ethical Considerations

In addition to these professional ethical positions, there are several other instances where an ethical consideration may arise within the decision on the acceptance of an appointment. These can include items of a personal nature, as well as issues related to the prevailing social, political or legal conditions. Each of us will have our individual ethical stance. For instance, we may not want to be involved with projects related to the tobacco industry, the production of alcohol, or any form of gambling.

If that does not provide enough to consider, there are also social issues, such as whether the project was related or connected in any way to trafficking or exploitation of labour. Added to this would be a review to assess the potential environmental or sustainability impacts from the project, outside of those which the appropriate design can mitigate. An additional issue for projects with an international component (either in whole or in some part) may be whether the benefactor is part of an oppressive regime. Another example of a dilemma for projects in some countries is whether preparing a design for a location which still actively incorporates asbestos in the build process is one with which you would wish to be associated.

Legal Issues

Everything discussed so far is based on personal ethical stance and outcome will vary depending on the outlook of the concerned parties. However, there are issues where the legal and political framework will overrule. The difference in the two definitions is obvious, ethics deals with the moral principles governing the conduct of certain individuals. Law on the other side is a system of rules recognize by a community as governing the actions of individuals. Thus, whilst morality could mean a different thing to different people, laws are crystal clear, straightforward and can be enforced by the imposition of penalties. Should the legal framework not provide any recommendation, then the ethical consideration overrule the lack of any legal stipulation. The legal requirement also encompass the political aspects of sanction either against an individual or more broadly based ones against regimes or countries. Allied to this are any considerations arising from the anticorruption legislation in the engineer’s country of work.

The issue of bribery and corruption should also be considered at the initial appointment stage and also closely monitored during the course of the job. In most countries, legislation would hold you responsible for the actions of you and your staff.

In summary, every professional body has its code of ethics, all of which covers similar issues and concerns. However, emphasis on each item would vary between institutions, but every member would always be required to comply with the recommendations of the institution to which they belong, in order to remain a member.

Finally having resolved all of the issues raised above in an agreeable manner, you can begin to enjoy your new job.

See: Site Inspections by Structural Engineers in Construction


  1. Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Council (2017) Statement of Ethical Principles [Online] Available at: (Accessed: March 2021)

2. Institution of Structural Engineers (2019) Code of conduct and guidance notes [Online] Available at: www.istructe. org/about-us/istructe-code-of-conduct/ (Accessed: March 2021)

3. Institution of Structural Engineers Ethics Panel (2017) Example ethical scenarios [Online] Available at: (Accessed: March 2021

Thank You!

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