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A conflict of interest is an idiom applying to a situation where an individual exercising judgment has a special interest in said subject which may interfere with his or her judgement. This special interest may include but is not exclusive to financial gain, family, friend or personal relationships involvement, personal gain and previous employer conflict. A conflict of interest must be examined on a case by case basis, whereby even the appearance of a conflict of interest can be as damaging to the reputation of an engineer. In dealing with even the appearance of a conflict of interest, full disclosure is advised.
The reputation of the engineer exercising judgement is of paramount importance. In the words of Michael Davis of Illinois IT, a conflict of interest can be compared to dirt in a gauge. It does not mean that the reading of the gauge is incorrect, but due to the presence of the dirt the reading cannot be relied upon. Failure to fully disclose a conflict of interest results in loss of faith in an engineer and as a result the judgement exercised by the engineer cannot be acted upon without doubt. Conflict of interests are often unclear. For example, a PhD student whose dissertation is academically judged by a professor who is also the boss of a company to which the PhD student has interviewed for is a conflict of interest. Although the boss of the company may not have any input into whether the student will be hired, there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest here for several reasons. Firstly, if the company are keen to hire the student, the boss correcting the dissertation will be inclined to look more favourably on the script in hope the student will join his company as a result.
On the flip side, if the student interviewed poorly with the company and the boss is aware of this, his perception of the student is clouded by this, despite it being irrelevant to his dissertation. In this scenario, even if the boss is unaware of the students application there is potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest. The student, if unhappy with the outcome of his dissertation, may feel hard done by and claim the judgement of the boss was impacted by the interview. Conflict of interests in engineering are most commonly found in the workplace. One simple example is advising an employer on where to buy a specialized part. There will likely be limited manufacturers and as it happens the engineer holds stock in one of the companies. In this scenario the conflict of interest is obvious and the engineer should act in an ethical manner.
Disclosing the conflict of interest and recusing himself/herself is the proper way to proceed. However, what happens if there is no engineer capable of stepping in and recusing oneself is not an option? Without full disclosure the judgement of the engineer cannot be trusted. Disclosing the situation to a superior and following their advice is the best way to proceed. Another common conflict of interest in the workplace occurs when an engineer has recently changed company and is now working on a similar product for which the previous company is a direct competitor. Due to the nature of engineering, with small number of expert engineers in a specialized market, this is a common occurrence. This conflict of interest is almost always covered under a confidentiality agreement signed by the engineer at the start of employment. However, what is covered by the confidentiality agreement, what is a conflict of interest and what skills learned at the previous company can be used in the new workplace? It is important for an engineer to be able to distinguish between all three. Trade secrets are defined as information that has commercial value, required effort on part of the organisation to develop and owner of the information must actively try to keep the trade secret confidential. Trade secrets need not be patented but should still never be shared. That being said techniques and skills developed in previous companies cannot be considered as a conflict of interest or a breach of confidentiality. For example, in the new company uses MATLAB however, your previous company used Python for the same task because Python is much quicker. It is not a conflict of interest to suggest to the new company to use Python to increase the speed of the task.
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