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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Engineering Ethics Cases

The following series of engineering ethics cases were created by interviewing numerous engineers from Silicon Valley and beyond.

The cases have been written, anonymized, and honed to highlight the ethical content from each interview. While these cases are meant for engineering students and professionals for their professional development, nearly all of the cases occur in the context of business, and therefore are also relevant for those seeking business ethics cases.

These cases are suitable as homework and/or for classroom discussion. The goal of this project is to acquaint engineering students and professionals with the variety of ethical experiences of engineering as practiced “in the field.” By becoming familiar with problems faced by other engineers we hope to thereby prepare those reading these cases if they too encounter difficult ethical dilemmas in their work.

Cases range from the mundane to the deadly. While we do not reveal how each particular case turned out, in general they turned out well – the people involved made the right decisions. But this is not to say that all of these right decisions came without personal cost. A few of the engineers did face negative repercussions and a very few even needed to find new employment. However, overall the interviewees were satisfied with how events turned out, even if they faced negative repercussions for their good decisions. They understood that doing the right thing is good in itself, regardless of the personal consequences they may have faced.

The engineering ethics cases can be sorted into the following categories:

Case Studies on Engineering Ethics

  • To Ship or Not to Ship

    A quality assurance engineer must decide whether or not to ship products that might be defective.

  • Time-Sharing Space

    An intern at a power electronics startup faces unkind comments from a fellow engineer. She suspects that her colleague is prejudice toward female engineers.

  • Inhibited Reaction

    A chemical engineering professor discovers that a colleague has taken credit for his research.

  • Apathy over Anonymity

    A bioengineering researcher discovers an error in protocol and feels pressured not to report it to her supervisor.

  • Questioning a Mentor

    A graduate student suspects her research adviser has earned tenure under false pretenses.

  • Copyright Concerns

    A computer startup company risks violating copyright laws if it reuses a code that is the intellectual property of another company.

  • Off the Clock

    A recently promoted manager at an industrial engineering company discovers that factory workers are asked to work more than eight hours a day without getting paid overtime.

  • Misinterpretation Mishap

    Full transparency might prevent a project leader from closing a deal with a valuable client. Should he still clarify the situation to his client?

  • Disclosure Dilemma

    A manager at a consumer electronics company struggles over whether or not he should disclose confidential information to a valued customer.

  • Trimming Data

    A medical researcher is asked to trim data before presenting it to the scientific advisory board.

  • Going Public

    A technical sales engineer feels pressure to falsify a sales report in order to prevent the delay of her company's IPO.

  • A Breach in Security

    When a computer filled with personal data gets stolen, a data company must decide how to manage the breach in security.

  • Onerous Favorites

    Employees of a computer hardware company are angered by a manager that demonstrates favoritism.

  • Unintended Effects

    A project engineer believes his company is providing the wrong form of technology to an in-need community in East Africa.

  • A Violation of Privacy

    A computer engineer is asked to divulge private medical data for marketing purposes.

  • This Land is Your Land

    Environmental engineers face pressure to come up with data that favors their employers.

  • Trouble with Training

    In this ethics case, a woman is displeased with her work role at a computer hardware company.

  • A Sinking Situation

    A systems engineering company employee quits after getting pressured to falsify product testing paperwork.

  • A Situation Unfiltered

    A manager at a nonprofit mechanical engineering firm questions how responsible her company should be for ongoing maintenance on past projects.

  • A Marshland's Fleeting Flourishing?

    An engineer for an environmental consulting firm must decide whether or not he should encourage his client to go with a more environmentally sustainable construction plan.

  • Stem Cell Party

    A genetic engineer feels a responsibility to educate colleagues on the truth behind stem cell research.

  • Giving in or Giving up

    An engineering manager gets pressured to bribe a foreign official in order to secure a business venture in East Africa.

  • Insurmountable Differences

    An African-American electronics design lead wonders whether his colleague's contentious behavior is motivated by racism.

  • A Lengthy Dilemma

    A medical company asks blood sample suppliers to sign an ethically questionable consent form.

  • Presidential Pressure

    A quality assurance tester gets pressured to falsify data about a new product from a major cell phone company.

  • Is the Customer Always Right?

    Should a production engineer prioritize a customer's desires over safety?

  • Foul on the Field

    A female intern at a construction company faces disrespectful treatment because of her gender.

  • May the Truth be with You

    A new hire at an electronics startup struggles to decide between telling the truth and maximizing the company's profit.

  • Solar Falsifier

    A fellow for a global services program faces an ethical dilemma when a colleague asks him to falsify receipts.

  • Looking toward a Medical Future

    A researcher of regenerative medicine meets a man who is eager sign up for potentially dangerous human testing.

  • A Positively Negative Response

    A bioengineer's research leads to the discovery that a patient might have prostate cancer.

  • Bulk Discount Balk

    Two support engineers at a South Bay audio visual electronics startup question the fairness of a supervisor's decision.

  • Questioning the Average

    An employee overseeing data analysis on a clinical drug trial has concerns about the safety of a client's drug.

    The engineering ethics cases in this series were written by Santa Clara University School of Engineering students Clare Bartlett, Nabilah Deen, and Jocelyn Tan, who worked as Hackworth Engineering Ethics Fellows at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. In order to write these cases, the fellows interviewed numerous engineers and collected nearly 40 engineering ethics cases from Silicon Valley and beyond. The Hackworth Fellowships are made possible by a generous gift from Joan and the late Michael Hackworth.