Engineering Ethics - Confidentiality

The other important responsibility of an employee or an engineer is to maintain the confidentiality of the organization or the employer. To understand confidentiality, we need to understand what is Intellectual Property.

Intellectual Property

This term is often used in the world of business. Intellectual property refers to creations of mind such as inventions; literary and artistic works, designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.

The ideas and formulations in one’s mind are put in action or may not be done so, but that idea is the result of one’s intelligence and it cannot be stolen. Such problems are mostly encountered by scientists, engineers, business people or the upcoming entrepreneurs, and such. Intellectual Property, i.e., IP is protected by the law; patents, trademarks and copyrights enable people to earn recognition from what they invent or create.

While being associated with an organization, an engineer is expected to follow a few moral rules and avoid affecting the intellectual properties of anyone. These when adopted by an organization, through some agreement, it becomes the responsibility of every employee to maintain the confidentiality throughout that project.


When the word confidential is added to any information, it means that it should not be shared with one and all. It is mostly a trade secret. Maintaining confidentiality and avoiding harmful conflicts of interest are especially important aspects of teamwork and trustworthiness.

Confidentiality is that practice which helps to keep secret all information deemed desirable to keep secret. The maintenance of secrecy refers to the unrevealing of any data concerning the company’s business or technical processes that are not already in public knowledge. Every company has some knowledge and can identify the individuals and groups that might have access to a particular set of information. The members of such groups share the responsibility of maintaining confidentiality.


Types of information

The confidential information can be understood as Privileged Information and Proprietary information. Privileged information means “available only on the basis of special privilege” such as a privilege accorded an employee working on a special assignment. Proprietary information is the information that a company owns or is the proprietor of, and hence is a term carefully defined by property law. It is simply called trade secret.

The patents legally protect the products from being manufactured and sold by other competitor unless a patent holder grants permission. Whereas the trade secret, has no such legal protection. Hence a reverse engineering can be done by analyzing a product to estimate its manufacturing so as to duplicate it or to develop something more than that, without any kind of permissions.

Changing jobs

The obligation to protect confidential information does not cease when employees change jobs. The former employees are bound by moral rules and are not supposed to indulge in revealing or selling such information to the new employers. An employee may change his job for his personal financial or career-oriented growth. But that should never effect the old company, which he used to work for.

An engineer’s knowledge base generates an intuitive sense of what designs will work and will not work, and trade secrets form part of this knowledge base. It is usually considered a better deal, if the employee is not allowed to change the job until the project finishes; this helps in avoiding unnecessary revelation of information.

Management Policies

To protect the personal interest and rights of engineers and other employees while recognizing the rights of employers, employment contracts with a few restrictions imposed, helps. Usually, those restrictions centered on the geographical location of future employers, the length of time after leaving the present employer before one can engage in certain kinds of work and the type of work it is permissible to do for future employers.

But such contracts threaten the right of individuals to pursue their careers freely and hence courts tend not to recognize them as binding. The employers might try different plans such as an agreement not to work for similar project for few years or to be an outside consultant for the same project until it finishes so as to make them abide morally. Other tactics like restricting trade secrets to employees where absolutely essential might result in lessening the knowledge base of engineers involved in research and development.

One potential solution for employers might be generating a sense of professional responsibility among the staff that reaches beyond merely obeying the directives of current employers.


The primary justification is to respect the autonomy (freedom, self-determination) of individuals and corporations and to recognize their legitimate control over some private information concerning themselves. The rights and duties of autonomy along with its utilities are to be observed. The trust and trustworthiness can grow once confidentiality is maintained properly.

Conflicts of Interest

A person may have different types of interests. Such interests can be pursued according to the will, convenience and the laws prevailing. A person working in an organization might have multiple interests related to the job he is doing; if he does some side business which means he might be a competitor or he might work with a competitor, it might pose a problem for the employer. Such an employee is usually fired from the organization.

Thus, we can refine our definition of conflicts of interest by saying that they typically arise when the following two conditions are met −

  • The professional is in a relationship or role that requires exercising good judgment on behalf of the interests of an employer or client.

  • The professional has some additional or side interest that could threaten good judgement in serving the interests of the employer or client.


There occurs a usual dilemma between conflicts of interest and conflicting interests. To get a clear understanding between both, let us consider two examples.

Example 1

Let us consider a girl who needs to choose from among her interests in order to fit in her timetable. She wants to attend the exam in college, to attend the music class, to go out for a movie, to deliver a seminar and also go visit her friend. As she is falling short of time, it is her interest to choose what to do and what not. The term used to mention this can be “Conflicting interests” and this cannot be morally wrong.

Example 2

If another instance is considered where a man works for a company, being in some crucial position where he has access to all the confidential information and if he works as an unofficial adviser to his wife’s company, it would be morally wrong, where a moral conflict definitely arises. This can be termed as “Conflict in interests”.

Hence, the two concepts are different.

There arise very subtle situations with various conflicts of interests. Let us see the most common ones −

Gifts, bribes and kickbacks

The following definitions will help us understand this −

  • A bribe is a substantial amount of money or goods offered beyond a stated business contract with the aim of winning an advantage in gaining or keeping the contract and where the advantage is unfair or otherwise unethical.

  • Gifts can be small gratuities offered in the normal conduct of business.

  • Prearranged payments made by contractors to companies or their representatives in exchange for contracts actually granted are called Kickbacks.

At times, if the money or gifts offered are substantial enough to threaten the fairness of competitive situations, then such gifts turn out to be bribes. They cannot be accepted as simple gratuities. Hence there is a thumb rule stating such condition as, “If the offer or acceptance of a particular gift could have embarrassing consequences for your company if made public, then do not accept the gift”.

Interest in other companies

An Employee while working in his company, if supports another company, during his leisure time to earn more or for some other career aspects, can be understood as committing an immoral act. Such an act is called Moonlighting which usually creates conflicts of interests. Instances creating such conflicts can be working for competitors, suppliers or customers.

The want of additional income or the need for personal and professional growth might foster one to pursue such ideas, which usually creates problems. A special kind of conflict of interest arises, however, when moonlighting leaves one exhausted and thereby harms the job performance.

Insider information

The insider information might concern one’s own company or another company with which one does business. Leakage of the information for the interest of some other benefits is like digging one’s own pit. The interest in other’s companies makes a person morally low and lets him to go beyond moral boundaries and this might create an impact on the confidentiality for the reception of special privileges. When a person crosses his moral grounds, even the beneficiaries stop trusting him further.

Employee conflicts of interest occur when employees have interests that if pursued can keep them from meeting their obligations to serve the interests of the employer or client for whom they work.