Ethics and Legal Considerations for the Business Savvy Engineer

26 Dec 2018 1:00 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)
By Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP

(EMBOK Blog Post #11)

Greetings!  We continue our yearlong series of EMBOK (Engineering Body of Knowledge) blogs with a discussion of Domain 10, “Legal Issues in Engineering Management”.  And while this isn’t the most compelling domain for practicing engineers, it does contain important and relevant information.  You want to be familiar with the legal issues in engineering management before you need to use that knowledge.

Contract Management

Engineers, project managers, and leaders are often involved in contract  negotiations and purchasing decisions.  It is important to recognize that legal terms and conditions in a contract may impact the delivery of equipment, quality of work, and project schedules.  Engineering managers should always be involved with contract negotiations, alongside the organization’s legal advisors, to ensure technical aspects of the agreement are justified and accurate.

There are typically three stages in a purchasing agreement (EMBOK, Domain 10).

  1. Negotiation in which both parties clarify goals and reach agreement on the work to be done and reimbursement for that work;
  2. Formation wherein the legal documents and contracts are drafted, reviewed, and finalized; and
  3. Administration during which the vendor will provide the work and the buyer will ensure the work meets contractual obligations.

Regulations:  Environmental and Human Resources

Other legal areas in which engineers and engineering managers find themselves include environmental and human resources (HR).  Engineering must design and develop processes that meet all required environmental regulations within their city, county, region, state, and/or national jurisdictions.  These include compliance with laws that protect the air, water, and land.  It is a good corporate practice to meet US or international environmental standards even if the plant jurisdiction has no environmental regulations.  Most facilities have designated environmental specialists on staff and these personnel should be consulted when any question arises regarding design or operation of a facility with respect to discharges, waste, or raw material consumption.

HR laws are complex and include arenas covering age, gender, and physical ability discrimination.  Engineering managers often are the go-betweens of staff and official HR departments.  Engineering managers must always maintain a professional demeanor and act in an ethical way.

Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks

Engineers are frequently the source of new ideas.  These ideas may lead to various forms of intellectual property protection.  Most countries have a version of patent law which protects the inventor, allowing exclusive and unhindered practice of the invention for a certain number of years.  Patents must be novel and non-obvious.  Authors of patents must directly contribute to the invention and one or more of it claims.  Patents are granted by the government of a single nation, but international agreements allow filing in several blocks of countries for an added fee.

Copyrights are a weaker form of intellectual property protection and allow a creator to protect his or her work.  Copyrights apply to written works of art like books, music, and certain other art forms.  The life of a copyright usually extends beyond the life of the author.  (Copyright is usually indicated by the letter C in a circle.)

Finally, trademarks are generally used by companies to protect their marketing collateral.  Logos and slogans are frequently trademarked.  For example, the Nike “swoosh” logo is quite famous and is protected by a trademark.  This means that no other sporting goods, shoe manufacturer, or clothing retailer can copy or mimic a “swoosh” on similar goods for sale in similar markets.

Engineers and engineering managers are often asked to document the specific, technical claims in a patent.  In our writing, we must be aware of prior art and provide appropriate references of copyrighted materials.  And finally, we cannot use a logo or slogan without a proper trademark reference (given by the superscript “TM”). 


Engineers, especially licensed professional engineers (PE), are bound by a code of ethics to follow the highest standards in their industry.  US and international bodies disseminate standards that are essentially best practice design procedures and policies.  For instance, in the State of Texas where I live, a building code requires all houses constructed after a certain date to have a non-porous floor in any room where water is present.  (Practically, this means you need a tile floor in the kitchen and bathroom.) 

Similarly, ASEM offers standards of practice for engineering managers through the EMBOK.  Certification as a Certified Professional Engineering Manager (CPEM) demonstrates knowledge, experience, and mastery of the eleven domain areas.  Following these standards drives the highest level of performance for engineering managers.  Hiring a CPEM ensures the organization that an individual will practice the engineering management profession with a broad skills base and will behave ethically.

How do you encounter legal issues in your job today as an engineer or engineering manager?

About the Author

Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, CPEM, PMP®, NPDP, is a passionate lifelong learner.  She enjoys helping individuals and companies accelerate their innovation programs.  In her free time, she loves scrapbooking.  You can learn more about Teresa and her new Innovation MasterMind group by connecting on LinkedIn

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