Once a fortnight our ‘What It’s Like…’ series interviews a member of one of the governance boards, highlighting their work, their role in Engineers Ireland's community and advice for members interested in becoming involved. This week’s interview is with Mary Sharp, chair of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board.

Engineering is a profession requiring a high standard of scientific education together with specialised training, formation and experience.

Dignity, standing and reputation

Arising from the rights and obligations of the engineering profession, it is essential that members have a clearly defined Code of Ethics to ensure that they act in accordance with proper professional standards and order their conduct in such a manner as to uphold the dignity, standing and reputation of Engineers Ireland.

Mary Sharp, chair of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board

The Code of Ethics helps ensure members remain aware of their responsibilities to themselves, society, their clients, employers, employees and colleagues; strive to maintain the highest levels of competence in their respective technical disciplines; seek to enhance and promote the standing of the profession and its practitioners; and behave at all times with integrity. 

The Ethics and Disciplinary Board is a standing committee of Council responsible for promoting, monitoring and enforcing the Code of Ethics, including appointing investigative and disciplinary panels to investigate and adjudicate upon complaints of professional misconduct.

Mary Sharp is a biomedical and computer science engineer based in Dublin, and a Fellow of Engineers Ireland. She joined the Ethics and Disciplinary Board in 2009 and became chair in 2010.  

Breaches of the Code of Ethics

Potential breaches of the Code of Ethics by members are brought to the attention of the board who decide whether an investigation of the complaint is warranted.

The investigation process into potential breaches of the Code of Ethics, usually conducted by a panel of three experts, is rigorous and impartial with many of the cases presented proving to be complex and protracted.

For some, the level of commitment required for this board may be too high but when asked about her motivation to join it, Sharp confirms that the decision to join wasn’t a difficult one.

“The work of the board complemented my own research interests. Engineers work to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges and ensuring an ethical mindset that is front and centre of these projects is important to me," she says.

Range of ethical issues

"Joining the Ethics and Disciplinary Board presented me with an opportunity to see first hand the range of ethical issues that can occur in engineering projects, how to best address them and, ideally, prevent them from becoming an issue again in future.”

Adjudicating on potential breaches of the Code of Ethics is a complicated task, requiring careful attention to detail, extensive project and time management skills, and the ability to think objectively.

However, for Sharp this is not the most challenging element of her role. Instead it is ensuring that the role of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board, and indeed the role of Engineers Ireland, in these matters are clearly understood by all the parties involved in an ethics case.

“We adjudicate only on the conduct of the engineer and how this conduct relates to their commitment as a member of Engineers Ireland. A condition of membership is that all members observe and comply with all regulations and with the Code of Ethics.

'Adjudicates only on conduct of engineer'

"It can at times be difficult to explain to a complainant that the Ethics and Disciplinary Board adjudicates only on the conduct of the engineer.

"For example, we are not in a position to mediate a dispute, provide legal or professional advice, or ask an engineer to refund or amend their fees. If the member is found to be guilty of misconduct, then they can be sanctioned in accordance with the Code of Ethics but this does not include financial compensation.”

Despite the complex nature of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board, to serve as a member on this board is also a rewarding experience. “Engineering is an integral element of society, feeding into areas such as biomedicine, transportation, electricity and construction.

"The contribution I make to supporting the conscientious growth of the industry, through the board’s commitment to promoting high standards within the engineering community, is of great importance to me.

"Another aspect of the role I view as being very rewarding is the opportunity it has given me to act as a resource for members of the public who may be dissatisfied with their experiences with an engineer, and help them as best I can within the remit of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board and Engineers Ireland as a whole. It is a complicated role, but one I see as being thoroughly worthwhile.”

Furthermore, Sharp notes that navigating these complicated cases has also proved an excellent learning opportunity. “Investigating a potential breach of the Code of Ethics is a sensitive matter, and it’s important to bear in mind that going through the investigative process can be stressful for those involved.

Manage participants’ expectations

"Learning to manage participants’ expectations and anxieties about the process and understanding the perspectives of all parties involved is a key skill I’ve learned over the course of my time on the board.”

Should a member of Engineers Ireland be interested in joining the Ethics and Disciplinary Board, Sharp’s advice is clear: “Understandably, you would firstly need to be totally familiar with the Code of Ethics and the process for investigating and hearing a complaint.

"You would also need to have an empathy with people and be able to keep an open mind on all complaints until they are thoroughly investigated by the investigative panel.

"Some cases can take considerable time to solve so you would also need make sure that you have sufficient time to dedicate to sitting on the board and investigating a complaint as part of a panel.”

Vacancies on the Ethics and Disciplinary Board, as they arise, are advertised on the Engineers Ireland website. For further information, the Code of Ethics (2018) is available here.

Engineers Ireland could not function without the active participation of so many of our members who give so enthusiastically of their time and talents to serve the profession. More information on the role of the Ethics and Disciplinary Board and its responsibilities is available in the Engineers Ireland Bye-laws (available here).