The Source Civil Engineering Magazine ASCE’s new code of ethics guides civil engineers
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ASCE’s new code of ethics guides civil engineers

By Matt Fogleson

After going for more than four decades without significant changes, ASCE’s Code of Ethics underwent a total rewrite that was adopted in October 2020. The highlights of the new code, which a task committee spent countless hours crafting, include an easy-to-interpret hierarchical system; language that is clear, concise, and modern; and an approach that addresses issues of the day while allowing for future alterations as necessary. 

By the time Robin A. Kemper, P.E., LEED AP, ENV SP, F.SEI, Pres.19.ASCE, became ASCE’s president-elect elect in 2017, she had been thinking for four years about what she saw as the need for a new Code of Ethics for members.

It took seven years, but Kemper’s vision came to full fruition on Oct. 26, 2020, when — at Kemper’s final Board of Direction meeting as a presidential officer (past president) — the Board voted to replace the 46-year-old code with one formulated by a task committee Kemper had created. She traces the roots of the new code to 2013, when she became a member of the Committee on Professional Conduct.

“We would talk about how wordy and even difficult the Code of Ethics had become to understand, how things were added to the canons over time but maybe they were in the wrong canon, and the lack of hierarchy when there was a conflict between canons or even a conflict within a canon,” says Kemper, who is a senior risk engineer at Zurich North America. 

Since the previous code’s inception in 1974, the Board had periodically adopted modifications. One of the biggest changes came in 2017, with the addition of Canon 8, which focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. While these principles were welcome additions, Kemper felt the modification magnified the need for writing a new code rather than continuing the process of revising the existing one. “Some of us felt it shouldn’t be a new canon but incorporated into the existing canons,” she says. “But in general, it brought up the discussion again (of) how cumbersome the code had become.” 

Upon becoming president-elect elect, Kemper, in her first meeting with ASCE executive director Thomas W. Smith III, CAE, ENV SP, F.ASCE, expressed a desire to set up a task committee to “write a Code of Ethics for the 21st century, as if it were the first Code of Ethics for ASCE.” Just before taking the reins as ASCE president, Kemper made the request in October 2018 to the Society’s executive committee to form a task committee to tackle the job.

Form and function
Once that task committee completed its journey, the most visible improvement was the functionality of the new code’s structure. As recounted by ASCE general counsel Tara Hoke, the new version is a “stakeholder model,” as opposed to the “canon model” employed by its predecessor (See “ASCE Adopts New Code of Ethics,” parts 1 and 2, in Civil Engineering, December 2020, pages 38-39, and January/February 2021, pages 26- 27). The five stakeholders — Society; Natural and Built Environment; Profession; Clients and Employers; and Peers — are enumerated hierarchically. 

“The new code organizes ethical duties under the specific stakeholder to which the duty is owed,” wrote Hoke, who served as ASCE’s liaison to the task committee, in her December article. “The goal of this change is to make the code’s structure more intuitive to engineers seeking to resolve ethical concerns.”

Task committee chair Brock Barry, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, sees this intuitive nature as the most significant improvement. For example, an engineer consulting the code can readily see that public safety, which falls under Society, the first stakeholder category, supersedes a client request, which falls under Client and Employers, the fourth stakeholder.

“Canons-based codes fail to resonate well with values-based cultures. They tend to not be intuitive or easy to use,” says Barry, who is a professor of engineering education at the United States Military Academy’s Department of Civil & Mechanical Engineering. “That can lead to significant gray areas in which an engineer is unable to determine which canon takes precedence in the event of an ethical conflict between stakeholders.”

The hierarchical nature of the new code is made clear in the preamble, whereas its predecessor gave no such guidance. Kemper says many members assumed Canon 1, which emphasized protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public, trumped all other canons, but this was not made clear in the document, leaving others to believe other canons were more important.

The structure of the new code will be helpful to the CPC as it makes rulings on individual cases of possible ethical violations brought before it, according the Peter Terry,P.E., PTOE, PMP, RSP2I, F.ASCE, a member of the CPC who served on the task committee that produced the new code.

“Serving on the CPC gives me insight into how the code is enforced and the types of ethics complaints that are submitted,” says Terry, who is president at Benchmark Civil Engineering Services Inc. “The CPC was very familiar with the previous code, so we knew how to use it, but sometimes it was clumsy.

“The previous code had several items — important items — tacked on as the higher-number canons,” he adds. “The new code’s organization will make it easier for the CPC but more importantly easier for members to understand and follow the Code of Ethics.”

To help ensure the new code would function well before the CPC, Terry developed a series of ethical situations loosely based on CPC cases. Sharing these with the CPC and the task committee helped ensure that the new code was comprehensive and addressed current ethics issues.

“We would talk about how wordy and even difficult the Code of Ethics had become to understand, how things were added to the canons over time but maybe they were in the wrong canon, and the lack of hierarchy when there was a conflict between canons or even a conflict within a canon.” 

Robin A. Kemper

A thorough process
Creating the new code — from the formation of the task committee to approval of the final document — took twice as long as anticipated. But nobody was complaining about the extra time and effort. “I could not have asked for a better group of dedicated volunteers,” Barry says. “We all signed up for a one-year commitment. At the end of two years, the entire committee was still full of passion and excitement.”

When Kemper asked Barry to chair the task committee, he quickly agreed. The majority of the eight-person task committee was provided for him by Kemper; he filled out the remaining seats by hand-selecting people he knew would make great contributions. Younger members and student members had voices.

“It was very important to me that we were capturing the perspective of our younger members,” Barry says. “They are the future of our Society and the profession.”

Kemper says the next step after forming the task committee was hiring a consultant to facilitate a session with the group that would help its members put aside their knowledge of the existing code and brainstorm about the content and structure of the new document. 

First on the table was the fundamental question regarding whether to write a new code or revise the existing one. 

“I recommended (the task committee) split up into two groups,” Kemper says. “One group looked at wordsmithing the existing code, and the other group looked at putting together a new code from scratch. Then the two groups came back together, and it was decided to go forward with the new draft code.” 

Stephanie Slocum, P.E., M.ASCE, a task committee member who was instrumental in promoting the new code, says gaining a consensus about a new code written from scratch was important and an ongoing theme throughout the group’s work.

“Task committee members had multiple experiences with individuals and groups who expressed resistance to a wholesale change to the Code of Ethics,” says Slocum, founder of Engineers Rising LLC. “Those challenges were overcome through a substantial commitment to education throughout the process, both on the process itself and the reasons for an overhaul of the code.”

The challenge in dealing with members who were hesitant about a rewritten code “was respecting their position while at the same time persuading them to consider the specifics of the long-overdue proposed update to the code,” adds Anna Pridmore, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, who wrote the first draft of the new code. “While we may not have been able to achieve 100 percent conversion of those who were fearful of change, I am proud that as the task committee continued its efforts, taking in feedback and making revisions to the code, many of those who were initially resistant became supportive of the new code.”

“ASCE had not commissioned a comprehensive review (of its code) since 1974. In 1974, I built my first building. … I was 2 years old, and I made it out of building blocks!” 

Brock Barry

A living document
Pridmore, vice president for pipeline and water infrastructure solutions at Structural Technologies, sees the new code as “a living document that can be referenced in an ongoing manner as a means to identify proactive steps civil engineers can take to emulate the principles of ASCE.

“This shift in conceptual thinking about the code is highly impactful,” she says. The new code is “no longer a set of rules but rather guiding principles written in a manner to create purpose and inspiration.”

Barry and his group engaged with the ASCE committee structure early in the process. The task committee reached out to the leadership of all existing ASCE committees, regions, etc., in hopes of keeping those groups apprised of the task committee’s work and encouraging a representative from each standing committee to join in a series of meetings with the task committee in the formative stages of the code. A significant number of members, representing a cross section of ASCE committees, engaged with the task committee and participated in a series of working sessions early in the draft review/rewrite process.

At multiple points during the process, ASCE created websites to post draft versions of the code and collect feedback from members. This decision provided the task committee with more than 1,500 comments.

“The opportunity for individual members to directly contribute to the process was important,” Barry says. “Each and every one of those comments were reviewed, evaluated, and discussed by (task committee) members. Important revisions were made as a result of constructive feedback received from individual members.” 

The task committee also used ASCE’s Collaborate site to host discussion threads about the process, eliciting additional member input. The group also delivered presentations at the ASCE Convention and other conferences and gatherings related to the civil engineering field — some sponsored by ASCE and others not — and engaged with representatives of other peer professional organizations. 

The task committee treasured such vast input, but it lengthened the process. The group spent much of its time documenting comments, discussing them, and deciding which ones to consider for incorporation.

“The biggest challenge with the new code was that words have meanings, but they have different meanings to different people,” Terry says. “The task committee spent an incredible amount of time reaching out to the ASCE community to get their thoughts. There were issues in which different members in ASCE had very different perspectives. 

“We spent a lot of time working to understand those perspectives and, in the end, made decisions. Those decisions were not able to make everyone happy. The task committee was amazed, however, with the number of people who shared their thoughts and ideas as we worked through all of the elements of the code.”

Multiple Board members, including some who were not in favor of adopting the new code at various points during the process, spoke favorably of the task committee’s outreach and engagement efforts, Barry says. One Board member referred to this effort as a model for other ASCE committees to follow.

“Writing a Code of Ethics must be done in a manner that is representative of the larger organization,” Barry says. “In reality, the (task committee) was not charged with just writing a new Code of Ethics. Under the surface of the charge was guidance to ensure that we conducted sufficient outreach and engagement with the membership to incorporate the membership’s perspectives. I believe that the task committee did a great job in that arena.

“Despite the significant amount of engagement and outreach activities, developing a consensus was never a goal,” Barry points out. “Every member has their own perspective on particular topics. Ethics is a topic that people are often passionate about. That is a good thing. However, editing the draft code to meet one member’s request can and did result in conflict with the views of other members. That is where the (task committee) had to weigh the input from various sources, make a decision, and then present the ultimate product to the ASCE Board for approval.”

In the end, the code retained the concepts of the initial vision while being augmented greatly by the vast amount of input the task committee received.

“The final version of the new code, when compared to the first draft, held to the original vision of the charter of creating a modernized and streamlined code with a substantially lower word count and less conflicts,” says Pridmore. “However, the lengthy review and feedback process was highly valuable in ensuring the new code contains all of the content necessary to provide a complete ethics road map for today and the next generation of civil engineers.” 

“The lengthy review and feedback process was highly valuable in ensuring the new code contains all of the content necessary to provide a complete ethics road map for today and the next generation of civil engineers.” 

Anna Pridmore

An inclusive effort
With the exception of a face-to-face gathering with the aforementioned consultant, meetings of the task committee were conducted via teleconference or videoconference. During the first year, the group met virtually once a month. That doubled during the second year, with even more frequent meetings during critical stretches. Various members of the task committee connected in-person for presentations at Board meetings before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group had always planned to meet virtually and the technology was sufficient, but the worldwide demand for better collaborative online environments as a result of the pandemic produced even better options.

Nobody kept track of how much total time the task committee invested, but Barry estimates he personally invested 600-700 hours, including time spent presenting to groups, listening to and responding to comments received from individuals, and working to build consensus with various groups. Slocum says the group spent countless hours supporting the education efforts necessary for consensus and countless more hours to review, synthesize, discuss, and incorporate feedback into the draft code.

“There were weeks where multiple committee members pitched in 20-plus hours to make sure we’d done everything possible to produce the best possible draft by the internal deadlines,” Slocum says. “Ultimately, selfless leadership and ownership of the process and our roles in it by every committee member is what made this possible.”

“The dedication, input, patience, and perseverance of each and every team member is what led to the success we achieved,” Pridmore adds. “We were energized by the idea of contributing to our Society in a meaningful way and hope that our attempt to help improve our profession will yield a positive impact on this and the next generation for many years to come.”

With the task committee having tackled such a monumental goal, a special bond was forged. While Barry’s role as chair made him a spokesperson for the task committee during outreach activities and the creator of agendas for meetings, each member, regardless of age, experience, or position, was vital in the decision-making process.

“Every voice was heard, and every perspective was celebrated,” Barry says. “Writing something like a Code of Ethics is not an individual activity. The code must be reflective of diverse perspectives. This task committee functioned well, met the charge presented by the ASCE Board, and delivered a very good code because of the mutual respect shared by the task committee members.”

One of the group’s biggest strengths was its members’ varying perspectives, which were formed largely from expertise in different areas of civil engineering and other interests.

Slocum, for example, has a background as a structural engineer in private practice and has “the broad outlook of someone who currently coaches and mentors engineers across discipline areas (and) acts as a champion for inclusive work cultures, particularly women and minorities. My role is one of synthesizing all those things together with ethical responsibilities, combined with a knack for asking good questions.”

For Pridmore, serving on the task committee provided an opportunity for career growth. “I found great value in helping out the team in any way I could — as a role player — and being part of the task committee was a growth experience for me personally and professionally in many ways,” she says. “One of the highlights was the opportunity to participate in an ethics panel discussion” that included Kemper and 2022 President-elect Dennis D. Truax, Ph.D., P.E., DEE, D.WRE, F.ASCE.

“Ultimately, selfless leadership and ownership of the process and our roles in it by every committee member is what made this possible.”

Stephanie Slocum

A modern take
Among important considerations to the task committee and ASCE members throughout the process of developing the new code were diversity, equity, and inclusion. As these topics began to dominate U.S. conversations and news media coverage in 2020, the importance of appropriately addressing them in the code became even more evident. The task committee received input from individuals on ASCE’s Members of Society Advancing Inclusion Council, many of whom were involved with the addition of Canon 8 to the previous code.

By nature of the structure of the new code, diversity, equity, and inclusion are integrated across multiple stakeholder areas. Elements of these topics can be found in seven locations of the new code and in three of the five stakeholder areas, Barry says. The highest levels of the hierarchy include the topics, giving them precedence over items lower in the hierarchy. 

“Given the strong prevalence of those topics in the media and in our daily lives, there is no doubt that they were on our mind as the code was developed,” Barry says. “The timing was interesting in that a draft of the code was already under consideration when the collective conversation around those topics was elevated. Accordingly, it gave us the opportunity to revisit, reevaluate, and, when needed, strengthen those subjects.”

Slocum also welcomes the ethical responsibilities related to sustainable development spelled out in the new code under the second stakeholder (Natural and Built Environment). 

“There was one clause in the previous code around sustainable development, however this code elevates awareness and the necessity of considering those impacts in civil engineering design,” she says. “This will be of specific importance to civil engineers who may not have educated themselves or their clients on this topic previously.”

The new code is not a list of rules and regulations telling civil engineers what not to do; instead, it focuses on what they should do. It contains concise, readable, modern, and gender-neutral language. It also employs terminology that translates well into other languages and cultures and that is relatable to younger members, Barry says.

The code also addresses current and emerging technologies. Considering the capabilities, limitations, and implications of such technologies is listed as an ethical requirement under the first stakeholder. 

“In a practical sense, this encourages young professionals or anyone working with technology with which they are unfamiliar to make sure they understand how to use it,” Slocum says. “This is particularly relevant, given the emerging areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the prevalence of computer-aided analysis and design throughout the industry.” 

Pridmore views Kemper as a role model and sees the new code as “the legacy achievement of her tenure as president.” Converting the code from punitive to aspirational and providing clarity via the stakeholder format were concepts “needed for ASCE to continue to grow, attract younger members, and serve the next generation of civil engineers,” Pridmore adds.

Hoke noted in her December article that the code went from some 2,200 words to less than a third of that length in its new incarnation. But task committee members say nothing was omitted in the new code.

“The heart of the prior code is still in place,” Barry says. “All of the topics embodied in the prior code can be found in the new code. However, the new code is more clear and more concise. Shorter yet clear documents are more likely to be used. We can communicate all of the same principles using a fraction of the words.”

Capturing the essence of the previous code was no accident, Pridmore says. The task committee went to great lengths to break down the key points from each canon and tie them into the new code. From the start, Slocum says, the direction the task committee was trending toward produced concepts “remarkably similar to the underlying principles represented at the heart of the existing code.”

“The (Committee on Professional Conduct) was very familiar with the previous code, so we knew how to use it, but sometimes it was clumsy. … The new code’s organization will make it easier for the CPC but more importantly easier for members to understand and follow the Code of Ethics.”

Peter Terry

A look forward
Task committee members agree that the new document will not change much in terms of how civil engineers conduct themselves in their daily work. (“The great majority of ASCE members act ethically in their work,” Terry points out.) But when finding themselves in conundrums, the code is there for consultation and is clearer, more concise, and, thanks to the stakeholder construction, more instructive. Slocum sees it as “a compass for decision-making.” 

“Sometimes when we are mired in the technical details of day-to-day engineering work, we can become desensitized to these issues,” Slocum adds. “This process of creating and implementing the new code already has and will continue to spark more awareness and consideration of ethics in daily work.”

As for the future of the code, the task committee sees it as a living document that will need periodic revisions, necessitated by the profession’s evolving nature. Upon adoption of the new code, Barry suggested the Board implement a regular cycle for comprehensive critical review of the code.

He says he would never claim the new document was perfect, which would be an impossible task, and encourages future revisions.

“While there have been edits and important improvements made to the prior code, ASCE had not commissioned a comprehensive review since 1974,” Barry says. “In 1974, I built my first building. … I was 2 years old, and I made it out of building blocks! ASCE was very overdue for this review. A systematic review cycle, perhaps something on the order of every three or four years, would likely result in incremental changes from one cycle to the next. It is easier for a group to consider and adopt small changes.” 

Ethics violations
Under ASCE bylaws, all ASCE members are required to comply with the Code of Ethics and to report any observed violations. The Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) reviews and investigates complaints in accordance with its rules of procedure. If the CPC finds that an ethics violation has occurred and that disciplinary actions are appropriate, it will forward its recommendations to ASCE’s Executive Committee or Board of Direction for a formal hearing on the matter.


To file a complaint:

  • Complete the Ethics Violation form
  • Mail your complaint to: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Reston, VA 20191
  • E-mail Tara Hoke at thoke@asce.org

This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “A New Compass.”

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