October 31, 2013

Caught in a Lie

I recently had a job seeker tell me he had been caught in a lie. During a job interview he had been questioned about something that was on his resume. The time didn’t add up - there was a glaring discrepancy that the employer was trying to clear up. The question was asked - there was no answer. The candidate was like a deer caught in the headlights. He froze. He knew he had been caught in a lie.

This young man hopes to be an engineer someday. But he demonstrated in his job interview that he might not have the "right stuff."

Lying is never acceptable. Lies always come back to haunt you. It is particularly egregious when the person’s goal is to obtain employment as a professional.

In life it is important to have a moral compass. Even more so in engineering. When an engineer lies, the public is put at risk. Engineers have tremendous responsibility for the safety of others. Engineers are the guardians of the environment, air quality, water quality and the ground around us. They are responsible for the structural soundness of buildings, the safety of transportation systems, and the privacy of confidential information, to name a few.

Professionals are held to a higher standard. Professions require a license to practice. Professionalism and integrity are intrinsically intertwined. The California Code of Professional Conduct for Professional Engineering specifically states, "A licensee shall not misrepresent nor permit the misrepresentation of his or her professional qualifications, affiliations or the purposes of the institutions, organizations, or other businesses with which he or she is associated."

Being a professional is a combination of knowledge, trust and reliability. You may be technically proficient but if you are slippery in your ethics or if you are unreliable no one will want you on projects. If you are lucky enough to get a job - you may not be lucky enough to keep it. Honesty and integrity are expected.

People around you - professors, potential employers, managers, and fellow team members, - are all judging whether or not you have the capacity to be a professional. Everyone around you is observing and storing the data.

People’s perception of you is based on your actions. They will judge whether you have the "right stuff" based on what you do and say. Every time you attend a class or a meeting, or you show up at work - you are being judged. You are interviewing for your next project or your next job in a very subtle way in all of your roles.

One of the most elegant bits of wisdom I ever heard came from Rich Layne, an engineering manager at Intel, "It is really very simple… Show up on time and well prepared, do your best work and have a good attitude." Honesty is presumed.

Honesty, ethics, and integrity are about doing the right thing all of the time. Engineering requires good judgment and high ethical standards. An ethical person does not cut corners.

It is easy to do the right thing when people are watching or when it doesn’t cost you anything. Integrity and high ethical standards means doing the right thing even when no one is looking; doing the right thing even when it is hard; doing the right thing even when it costs dearly. As a professional, you don’t have the option of the "easy way" when doing the right thing is difficult or inconvenient.

Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis said "If you are in physics and you get it right once they give you the Nobel Prize. If you are an engineer and you do it wrong once they put you in prison." Think about it - bridges fall, systems fail, dams break if engineers screw up.

An even more notable person, my mother, said repeatedly - "Just because everyone else is doing it, does not make it right. Do the right thing all of the time and you will have no problems you cannot solve."