This is a tremendously broad and diverse area of study. It is also an area that is coming under more scrutiny by consumers, individual watchdog groups, and government review committees. Ethics, or more appropriately the lack of ethics, has caused the loss of millions of dollars through fraudulent accounting practices, shoddy workmanship, etc. This chapter examines some definitions of ethics and some examples of poor business ethics in order to raise the awareness of the technician to the importance of ethics.
The word “ethics” is actually a philosophical term that comes from the Greek word “ethos,” which means character or custom. So, it is logical that a current definition of ethics is “the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment.” Although situations involving questionable ethics can exist wherever and whenever business decisions are made, the scope of this discussion is limited to areas with which the technician is probably associated.
The following incident illustrates one way that both personal ethics and technician knowledge of regulations can work together to provide him or her with the ability to make the right decision. Unfortunately, others in the shop did not appear as concerned as the technician sharing the incident.
A technician working for an airline was involved in a situation that required a repair or replacement of a fuselage ice shield. The computer inventory indicated that a replacement part was in stock, so the technician removed the damaged component. It was then found that the replacement part was not actually in stock. At this point, a crucial decision was to be made: Can the damaged item be reinstalled? The steps in properly documenting a maintenance event are to record the removal of the damaged part, then document the installation of an airworthy part. Once the technician has committed to removing the damaged part, it becomes unairworthy and cannot be reinstalled regardless of its deferability in the minimum equipment list (MEL).
The actual sequence of events is as follows:
- Significant impact damage to the ice shield was observed and recorded.
- The company inspector reviewed and instructed the technician to replace the ice shield.
- Availability of the replacement part was confirmed by computer.
- The damaged part was removed, and the technician prepared the surface for the replacement part.
- The new part was ordered from inventory, but the part was not in stock (inventory error).
- The inspector instructed the technician to reinstall the old one.
- The technician refused.
- The inspector instructed the technician to repair it.
- The technician researched the structural repair manual (SRM) and found that the facility did not have the proper facility authorization to repair the damaged part.
- The company inspector told the technician to apply 5-minute epoxy to the area, sand it down, and paint it.
- The technician walked away.
- The company inspector found someone else to compromise standards. The aircraft departed on time—illegally and unairworthy.
This happens more often than one would like, is probably overlooked by many people, and, unfortunately, might be considered standard operating procedure (SOP) for some maintenance facilities. It is the responsibility of the mechanic to follow regulations and to question the actions of his or her supervisors if the policy is circumvented to make an on-time departure.
This incident provides some valuable insights into how day-to- day events can lead to pressure to produce and ultimately compromise the decision-making.
- The incident occurred while working for a commercial airline. The pressure for getting the aircraft in the air is tremendous in this environment.
- Inventory error added to the pressure. The damaged part had been removed because the technician had queried and believed a replacement part was immediately available.
- The company inspector was either unaware of regulatory requirements or simply did not care.
- The second technician was either unaware of regulatory requirements or simply did not care.
The underlying company culture was apparently lacking concern for ethical decisions and regulatory compliance. An effective organizational culture should always encourage ethical behavior and discourage unethical behavior. This means that not only does the upper management of an organization say that they conduct themselves ethically, they must do it consistently; employees, customers, vendors, and even competitors should know this company has “high ethical standards.”
This latter issue may sometimes have painful consequences, if the businesses are competing for a customer’s business. The ethical company may estimate the maintenance activities to take 8 weeks and quotes that time frame to the customer. The unethical company may also know the work takes 8 weeks, but tells the customer only 6 weeks, hoping to get the job. Once the plane is “captured” and maintenance has begun, explanations and excuses extend the original time estimate of 6 weeks to the actual 8 weeks or longer. Although the customer would be disappointed in this situation, few customers would be able to remove an aircraft undergoing maintenance. This “bait and switch” tactic is often used by unscrupulous companies to get an aircraft into their shop no matter what it takes. Although the shop’s retention of clients is frequently very low, there always seem to be new ones willing to accept a shorter-than-normal turnaround time quote. Often these same shops underbid the job, and then continually add extra costs as the work progresses. The technician is encouraged to avoid employment at maintenance facilities that do not think twice about trying to deceive the customer.
Since companies are usually in business to make money, the “bottom line” mentality frequently drives management and, ultimately, technician decisions. But short-term, quick-fix solutions that focus only on immediate financial success promote the idea that everything boils down to monetary gain. Ethical behavior is not about monetary gain.
In addition to monetary gain, there are other common ways that unethical behavior is rationalized:
- Pretending that the behavior is not unethical or illegal.
- Excusing the behavior by saying it is really in the organization’s (or the technician’s) best interest.
- Assuming the behavior is okay, because no one else would even be expected to find out about it.
- Expecting your superiors to support and protect you if anything should go wrong (Gellerman 1986).
This latter point often leads to a significant surprise for the individual technician if he or she compromised his or her standards at the encouragement of management to get the job done. Should there be a problem with maintenance and subsequent airworthiness of the aircraft, the very same managers or superiors who directed that technician to shortcut proper maintenance procedures would testify in court that they always encouraged their employees to work “by the book” and never encouraged unauthorized shortcuts.
Ultimately, every organization establishes a climate or culture regarding honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior. This corporate climate sets the tone for decision making at all levels and in all circumstances. This leads to the second business example, the Aircraft Brake Scandal. Although this incident occurred at the B.F. Goodrich Wheel and Brake Plant in Troy, Ohio, and is therefore focused on the design, manufacture, and test of wheels and brakes for the U.S. Air Force A-7D, it is a classic case of both personal ethics and “whistle blowing.” A brief review of the pertinent facts in the incident follows.
A young engineering technician is in charge of conducting the required qualification testing for a newly designed brake and rotor system awarded to the B.F. Goodrich Co. by L.T.V. Aerospace. An aggressive time schedule and an upper management mindset of not wanting to hear bad news (i.e., the brakes are failing test), a senior engineer who is not willing to have his computations challenged, and a project manager who states the brake will be qualified “no matter what,” ultimately lead to a congressional oversight hearing in 1969. Along the way, the brake system is tested (and fails 14 times), no one wants to write the required test report, low level employees seek legal advice, and the aircraft suffers serious damage during landing while conducting initial flight testing due to unsatisfactory braking. (The reader is encouraged to look up this now famous case on the Internet to obtain more details.)
Some of the ethical conflicts that are evident in this situation are:
- Young engineer (newly hired) feels intimidated by senior level engineer.
- Early brake failure during development testing is excused away because “they are not representative of the final design.”
- A company culture of intimidation and distrust.
Most of these conflicts could have easily occurred in the maintenance realm if the specifics are broadened, even a little.
- Change the word “engineer” to “maintenance technician.”
- Instead of brake failure during development testing, think of component test failure (with the shop norm of “we don’t follow the manual on this step; we have developed our own (unauthorized) procedure here.”)
- The existence of a company culture of intimidation and distrust transcends all lines of business.
For a company to nurture a healthy ethical climate and long-term success, the element of trust is fundamental both inside and outside the organization. This trust boosts employee morale and usually boosts productivity and, therefore, profitability. It also aids and enhances long-term business relationships with customers and vendors.
When differences of opinion do exist, ethical organizations pay close attention to those who are dissenting. Those companies that are committed to promoting an ethical climate encourage rather than punish dialogue and debate about policies and practices.
It is encouraging to note that more and more institutions of learning, whether business schools or technical colleges, are adding ethics courses into their required curriculum. More and more organizations are developing a corporate “code of ethics.” Some are using the following seven-step checklist to help employees deal with an ethical decision:
- Recognize and clarify the dilemma.
- Get all the possible facts.
- List options—all of them.
- Test each option by asking such questions as: —Is it legal? —Is it right? —Is it beneficial?
- Make your decision.
- Double check your decision by asking: —How would I feel if my family found out about this? —How would I feel if my decision is printed in the local newspaper?
- Take action (Schermerhorn 1989).
Finally, the technician is encouraged to read the following code of ethics developed by Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), Inc. and consider adopting it as their own.
“As a certified technician, my performance is a public service and, as such, I have a responsibility to the United States Government and its citizens. I must ensure that all citizens have confidence in my integrity, and that I will perform my work according to the highest principles of ethical conduct. Therefore, I swear that I shall hold in sacred trust the rights and privileges conferred upon me as a certified technician. The safety and lives of others are dependent on my skill and judgment; therefore, I shall never knowingly subject others to risks which I would not be willing to assume for myself or those who are dear to me.”
“As a certified technician, I am aware that it is not possible to have knowledge and skill in every aspect of aviation maintenance for every airplane, so I pledge that I will never undertake work or approve work which I believe to be beyond the limits of my knowledge. I shall not allow any superior to persuade me to approve aircraft or equipment as airworthy when there is doubt in my mind as to the validity of my action. Under no circumstances will I permit the offer of money or other personal favors to influence me to act contrary to my best judgment, nor to pass as airworthy aircraft or equipment about which I am in doubt.”
“The responsibility that I have accepted as a certified technician demands that I exercise my judgment on the airworthiness of aircraft and equipment; therefore, I pledge unyielding adherence to these precepts for the advancement of aviation and for the dignity of my vocation.”