Code of ethics

Learning about products and manufacturers is important, but how far should the relationship go?

By Amara Rozgus, Editor-in-Chief March 28, 2018

Consulting-Specifying Engineer is a business-to-business media outlet. The print publication, newsletters, website, and other content are created to serve people in the business by people in the business. It’s free to those who qualify, whose jobs rely on the information supplied regularly by these various media. It’s supported by manufacturers, vendors, and companies who want to market their company or product to engineers and professionals allied with the building industry.

To pay for printing and postage, databases and content management systems, people and consulting, Consulting-Specifying Engineer sells manufacturers the opportunity to share its product or brand information with the audience. The practice is clean and transparent; business-to-business publications have been around for more than a century.

In publishing, there are very clear rules. Media cannot take individual gifts or anything that would seem to sway their opinion as they gather and report on information. Unless something is offered equally to me and my colleagues and competitors, I cannot consider accepting a gift, traveling to an event, or anything along those lines.

But what about the business of manufacturers trying to woo engineers directly? Is the practice of buying consultants meals or drinks altruistic? Is it OK for sales reps to provide engineers with free samples or tools? Is it unselfish for a manufacturer to offer consultants with free education or training, even if it is labeled as “unbiased” or “noncommercial”? Is this a healthy relationship?

There are arguments on both sides. In conversations with a few engineers over dinner one night, some of them indicated that they rely heavily on their manufacturers’ reps to provide them with the details needed to complete a design or pacify a building owner. Their relationships run deep, as they’ve worked with several people—often from competing companies—to ensure their clients have the best possible systems specified into a project.

On the flipside, some engineers indicated that they will reach out to a manufacturer only when they need information. Period. They don’t allow manufacturers into their firms for lunch-and-learns, they don’t visit a manufacturing facility to learn about the company or how its products can enhance their design, and they certainly don’t exchange cell phone numbers. They’ll learn about the product or system on their time, on their terms.

Consulting engineers should, by nature, be completely unbiased. If a client or building owner requests a specific manufacturer or product, that’s up to the client, and the engineer works within those parameters. If a manufacturer tries to influence a project specification (through any means, such as the contractor or other relationship), what are the rules here? And what if it’s a new company with a new product? How should consulting engineers learn about them?

Ethics courses in journalism school are common, as are ethics courses in engineering programs. If you or your firm has rules you must follow for these relationships, please share them with me. I’m curious about how these relationships work for you.