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Ethical Dilemma Case Studies: Rachel Hawks & Terry C.

Case Study: 1

Rachel Hawks is just settling in to a new position as junior engineer at a well-respected but small company located in a northern Canadian community. She and her husband have made the difficult decision to move away from extended family and her husband’s teaching position so that Rachel may further her career. Her husband has been unable to find work in his field, and the prospects for the near future seem pretty slim at best. Rachel’s colleagues are hardworking and adopt the highest standards for safety in all projects, but she finds out that unbeknownst to her, the company has been having difficulty obtaining contracts because of a downturn in the economy, and if the situation gets much worse, it is likely the company will have to consider laying off employees or even worse declare bankruptcy. Rachel’s first task is to develop a proposal for a new bridge that would connect the local mainland municipality to the isolated Indigenous community across the water.

Currently, the only way members of the Indigenous community can access services in the larger community and have products and medical supplies transported overland by truck to the community is during the winter months via an ice bridge. In spring, summer, and early fall, access between the two communities is by seaplane or boat, which is a considerably more expensive mode of travel that adds to the cost of products. Although construction of the bridge would benefit both communities, it would be especially beneficial to the Indigenous community as it would provide a less expensive way of transporting much needed goods in times of economic hardship. Rachel has spent many overtime hours to get the proposal ready and feels that the proposal is the most reasonable both in terms of cost and the use of materials that will ensure the safety and longevity of the bridge. Rachel submits the proposal to her supervisor, Peter Brown, who is both the senior engineer and the President/owner of the company.

While Rachel fully expects praise from her supervisor for her work, Peter returns the proposal and instructs Rachel to rework the proposal so that it comes in below the initial estimate. Rachel explains that in order to do so, estimates would have to be falsified, which would dishonest, and moreover, it would be impossible to complete the project as outlined in the proposal. At this point, Peter decides to confide in Rachel and explains that the incumbent MP for the area, who is seeking re-election, is fully in support of the project and would likely be able to secure a portion of the cost of the bridge through federal funding even though it would raise municipal taxes. The candidate who is running against the incumbent is opposed to project because it would result in increased municipal taxes and if elected would do everything possible to quash the project. The election is likely to be close, and Peter has contributed to the incumbent MP’s campaign to increase the chances that the incumbent MP will be re-elected, and in return, the MP’s friends in the federal department have explained how to write up the proposal so it will be accepted without challenge. Further, both the MP and Peter know that projects come with cost overruns and that if Peter’s company does the work it will be done well and not cost the community much more than if completed by another firm. Rachel knows that falsifying estimates is wrong, but she also is quite confident that if she doesn’t do it that Peter will. What should Rachel do?

Terry C. is a supervisor in the Office of Water Pollution at the Department of Environmental Quality. An investigatory team from Terry’s enforcement section has just finished its report of a six-moth study on the deep-wall injection of toxic chemical waste by several petrochemical processing plants. Preliminary chemical analysis indicates that there is sufficient evidence to believe that there is migration of these toxic materials toward the aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for three rural communities. The report is complete on Terry’s desk, ready to be submitted to her supervisor, who is the assistant secretary for Air, Water, and Hazardous Waste. 

Terry is very proud of the report and has praised her staff for it. As she finishes going over it one final time, she recalls her last damaging report on a major fish kill resulting from migrating toxic waste in the northern part of the province. When submitted up the chain of command, there was no response to the report for weeks. When Terry pressed for a response and suggested a course of action to remedy the condition, she was told that her report would not be passed on to the Premier’s Office. She was further told that a private consultant had been hired by the department to examine the situation, and the consultant’s preliminary findings were not in agreement with her report. The consultant found no wrongdoing on the part of the subject petrochemical plant (a plant that employs some two hundred workers in an economically depressed area). Terry recalls, also, that in this year’s budget, not only were three new positions she requested for the enforcement section denied, but two positions were also cut from her permanent staff.

Terry submits the report. Three months later she has still had no response. She finally calls the assistant secretary and is told that her report has not been passed on to the Premier’s Office, and once again, that a private consultant has been hired and is just about finished her examination. Her preliminary findings, Terry is told, do not agree with Terry’s report. Terry’s assistant (the leader of the investigatory team) walks in just as Terry is completing her conversation with the assistant secretary. She tells him what she has just heard. His response: “Maybe we should leak a copy to the press.”

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