The young man who is tendered a commission will naturally ask himself whether he can accept and retain it, and may, perhaps, reason somewhat in this way: "My professional advice was given without expectation of personal profit other than that earned in my fee, and it expressed my best judgment. The price at which the goods were purchased was that which every consumer must pay, and was not increased for my advantage. The transaction was satisfactory to buyer and seller, and was concluded when payment was made. I am now tendered a commission which I am at liberty to accept or to decline. If I decline it, I lose something, my client gains nothing, and the remaining profit to the seller is greater than he expected by that amount. If I accept it, I do my client no wrong. If it is the custom of manufacturers to pay commissions, it must be the custom of engineers to receive them; and there is no reason why I should be supersensitive on a point long since decided by usage." This is false reasoning, based upon erroneous assumptions.
Why do manufacturers pay commissions? Is it probable they make it a part of their business policy to give something for nothing? Is it not certain that they expect an equivalent for every dollar thus disbursed, and that in paying the engineer a commission they are seeking to establish relations with him which shall warp his judgment and make him their agent? It may be urged in the case of reputable manufacturers that they yield to this custom because other manufacturers have established it, and that in following the pernicious example they have no other object than to equalize the influences tending to the formation of professional judgment. This reasoning does not change in the least the moral aspects of the question from the manufacturer's standpoint, but what engineer with a delicate sense of professional honor could offer or hear such an explanation without feeling the hot blush of shame suffuse his cheeks? The plain truth about the commission is that the manufacturer or dealer adds it to the selling price of his goods, and the buyer unconsciously pays the bribe designed to corrupt his own agent.
Can an engineer receive and retain for his own use a commission thus collected from his client without a surrender of his independence, and having surrendered that, can he conscientiously serve the client who seeks disinterested advice and assistance in the planning and construction of work?
It is possible, perhaps, for a man to dissociate his preferences from his interests; so, also, is it possible for one to walk through fire and not scorch his garments but how few are able to do it! The young man in professional life who begins by accepting commissions will soon find himself expecting and demanding them, and from that moment his professional judgment is as much for sale as pork in the shambles. I counsel the young man thus tempted to ask himself, Am I entitled to pay from the manufacturer who offers it? If so, for what? If not, will my self-respect permit me to become his debtor for a gratuity to which I have no claim? Does not this money belong to my client, as an overcharge unconsciously paid by him for my benefit? If I refuse it, can I not with propriety demand in future that the percentage which this commission represents shall be deducted in advance from the manufacturer's price, that my client may have the benefit of it? If this is denied, can I resist the conclusion that it is a bribe to command future services at my hands? Is not the smile of incredulity with which the dealer receives my assurance that I can only take it for my client and hand it over to him, an insult to the profession, which, as a man of honor, I am bound to resent?
Gentlemen, it is not true that custom sanctions the acceptance of commissions by the engineer. That it is much too general I will not deny, but there are very few men of recognized professional standing who would confess that they have yielded to the temptation and retained for their own benefit the commissions received by them. I do not hesitate to give it as my opinion that the acceptance and retention of a commission is incompatible with a standard of professional honor to which every self-respecting engineer should seek to conform. Those who defend it as proper and right, and plead the sanction of usage, are not the ones to whom the young engineer can safely go for counsel and advice. The most dangerous and least reputable of all the competition he will encounter in an attempt to make an honest living in the practice of his profession is that of the engineer who charges little for professional services and expects to be paid by those whose goods are purchased on his recommendation.
With equal emphasis would I characterize as unprofessional the framing of specifications calling for patented or controlled specialties when, to deceive the client, bids are invited. I am well aware that it is easier to procure drawings and specifications from manufacturers than to make them. Many manufacturers are very willing to furnish them, but those who do are careful to so frame the specifications that they can secure the contracts at prices to include the cost of the professional work for which the engineer is also paid. There is nothing unprofessional in recommending a patented article or process if it be, in the judgment of the engineer, the best for the purpose to be accomplished, but he will do it openly and with the courage of his convictions. The young engineer should, I think, have no difficulty in recognizing the important difference which inheres in the methods by which a given result is accomplished.
In the relations of engineers to contractors there is many a snare and pitfall for the unwary feet of the beginner. In superintending the construction of work the engineer may err on the side of unreasonable strictness or on that of improper leniency. If so disposed, he can involve any contractor in loss and do him great wrong, but it more often happens that the engineer is forced to assume a defensive attitude and to resist influences too strong for a man of average courage and strength of will, especially if his experience in charge of work is limited. He should enter upon the discharge of his delicate and responsible duties with a desire to do impartial justice between client and contractor. He is warranted in assuming that his judgment and discretion are his chief qualifications for the position of supervising engineer, and that all specifications are designed to be in some measure elastic, since the conditions to be encountered in carrying them out cannot possibly be known in advance. He should not impose unnecessary and unreasonable requirements upon the contractor, even if empowered to do so by the letter of the specifications. The danger, however, is principally in the opposite direction.
Frequently the engineer has all he can do to hold the contractor to a faithful performance of the spirit of his agreement. He is bullied, misled, deceived, and sometimes openly defied. He must constantly defend himself against charges impeaching his personal integrity and his professional intelligence. The contractor can usually succeed in making it appear that he is the victim of persecution, and especially in public work he is likely to have more influence than the engineer with those for whom the work is done. It often happens that the engineer, defeated and discouraged, gives up the unequal battle. From that moment he is of no further use as an engineer, and if he remains for an hour in responsible charge of work he cannot control, he rates his fee as more desirable than a reputation unsullied by the stain of dishonor. He has a right to decline a conflict for which he feels unequal, but he has no right to consent to a sacrifice of the interests of his client while he is paid to protect them.
The questions of professional ethics arising out of the relations between the engineer and the contractor are much too complex to be decided by an inflexible rule of professional conduct, but the engineer cannot make a mistake in refusing to remain in responsible charge of work when, by remaining, he must give consent to that which his judgment tells him involves a wrong to his client. With equal confidence may it be asserted that the engineer who secretly participates in the profits of the contractor, whatever the arrangement by which such participation is brought about, sacrifices his professional standing.