Confidentiality is an important consideration in many professions. In the engineering profession, confidentially is particularly a concern with relation to the relationship of an employed engineer with his or her employer, especially a former employer. During the course of their employment, engineers often acquire intimate knowledge of many aspects of their employer’s processes and accumulated knowledge.
The Professional Engineers Ontario Code of Ethics (codified in the Professional Engineers Act (Ontario)) even stipulates that the engineer has a duty of care to their employer and must treat information obtained during their employment as confidential. This is a considerably stronger standard that is found in the code of ethics of many other professions, allowing what in most other professions would be a contractual issue to instead be subject to disciplinary actions by the governing bodies of the profession.
Case law in Canada and Britain includes some decisions and commentary that attempt to determine how strictly the confidentiality requirements affecting engineers should be taken. For example, the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada Lac Minerals , referring to English decision of Cranleigh Precision Engineering Ltd. V Bryant et al. , establishes that an employee cannot use confidential information as a “springboard” to damage the employer who is the legal owner of the information and puts the onus on the former employee wishing to use the information to prove that it was not acquired by breaching confidentiality. Some similar cases involving purported breaches of fiduciary duty on the part of engineers have followed similar logic, a few resulting in large settlements, though others use different reasoning resulting in a decision determining that there was no breach.
While confidentiality is a vital aspect in professions such as engineering, there are times when it ultimately must be breached. The Ontario Professional Engineers’ Act requires that engineers safeguard life, health, property, economic interests, public welfare and the environment. At times, a professional who is bound by a guarantee of confidentiality may be forced to breach that confidentially to expose unethical practices or intentions.
For engineers, these situations are never easy, as they require the professional to breach one article or another found in the Professional Engineers’ Act. Determining whether or not it is absolutely necessary to breach confidentiality requires the application of Mill’s concept of utilitarianism. The most ethical decision would be that which produces the greatest benefit for the largest number of people. Maintaining confidentiality will benefit both the engineer and their client; however, if that confidentiality may compromise public safety or have a severe negative impact on the environment, it would be most ethical to breach the confidentiality and do the right thing.
It is in a professional’s best interest to avoid incidents where they may not be able to maintain confidentiality. There are two critical situations that professionals should avoid: agreements that threaten public safety and the environment, as well as working for former clients’ competitors who may expect disclosure of the former client’s affairs. Circumventing these types of issues is not only the ethical thing to do; it will also help to avoid disciplinary actions brought on by either maintaining or breaching confidentiality.