Practicing Engineering Ethics in Global Context: A Comparative Study of Expert and Novice Approaches to Cross-Cultural Ethical Situations


Engineers and other technical professionals are increasingly challenged by the impacts of globalization. Further, engineering educators, technical managers, and human resources staff have demonstrated great interest in selecting and training engineers who are capable of working competently, professionally, and ethically in global context. However, working across countries and cultures brings considerable challenges to global engineers, including as related to understanding and navigating local and regional differences in what counts as professional ethics and integrity. In this study, we focus on written responses to 27 assessment scenarios that involve micro- and/or macro-ethical considerations in six national/cultural contexts (China, France, Germany, India, Japan, and Mexico). More specifically, we analyze responses to open-ended versions of the scenarios. Our participants consisted of both experts (e.g., experienced engineers) and novices (e.g., undergraduate students and early career professionals). Comparing and contrasting how experts and novices responded to these ethical problems sheds light on differences in their ethical strategies and approaches. This analysis also allows us to discern what specific cultural knowledge and sensitivity were employed by experts in solving cross-cultural ethical problems, but were largely lacking among novices. Finally, we analyze and discuss challenges faced by experts and novices in responding to cross-cultural ethical situations.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1160455.

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Correspondence to Qin Zhu.

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Appendix A. Sample Global Engineering Scenarios (Jesiek and Woo 2018)

Appendix A. Sample Global Engineering Scenarios (Jesiek and Woo 2018)

(GEC Dimension: Ethics, Standards, and Regulations; National/Cultural Context: China)

Global Engineering Scenario #16C: Suspicious User

As a sales engineer working for a U.S.-based company, you receive a large order from an intermediate distributor located in Tianjin, China. Upon receiving the order, you check to make sure that both your product and the intended end product are not banned in China or restricted by export trade policies. When you look up information about the end user online, you find that the website for the end user’s company looks suspicious and may have been created to appease you. What should you do in this situation?

Global Engineering Scenario #58: Alternate Feedstock

As a biomedical engineer employed by a U.S.-based medical device firm, you are working closely with a Chinese partner company that has been contracted to manufacture one of your firm’s new products. During a recent teleconference, you learn that the plastic feedstock originally sourced for a key component of the product is no longer available. Shortly thereafter, one of the lead production engineers from the Chinese company sends you a specification sheet and test results for an alternate feedstock from another supplier. While the extensive English-language text in these documents is poorly written and difficult to interpret, the numeric data and performance graphs look good, and your Chinese colleague insists that the material is acceptable. You are under pressure to sign off on the production plan. What would you do?

Global Engineering Scenario #72C: Shanghai Safety Glasses

Your work as an industrial engineer for a major North American OEM automotive parts supplier has landed you at a plant your firm recently acquired outside of Shanghai, China. As a member of an acquisition transition team, you are assigned to work on safety and compliance issues. For several weeks, you have been encouraging workers at the plant to wear eye protection when using certain machines. Yet even after posting signs, making safety glasses widely available, and talking to individual workers, you find that most employees continue to ignore the requirement. What would you do in this situation?

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Zhu, Q., Jesiek, B.K. Practicing Engineering Ethics in Global Context: A Comparative Study of Expert and Novice Approaches to Cross-Cultural Ethical Situations. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2097–2120 (2020).

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  • Comparative study
  • Cross-cultural
  • Engineering education
  • Engineering ethics
  • Ethical strategies
  • Global engineering
  • Experts
  • Novices