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I'm an engineer and I mostly do R&D. Often I am asked to test our product (a sensor) for performance, for two kinds of audiences:

  • Customers (where my employer's name goes on the document)
  • Scientific conferences and journals (where my personal name goes on the document)

To be clear, I am never asked to do anything blatantly unethical, like making up numbers, or running tests repeatedly until I get one that looks nice.

There is however pressure of different sorts. Where multiple test methods are available, I am asked to choose the one that makes our product look better, sometimes after-the-fact. If our product performs poorly on a particular sample, I might be asked not to report that one. Or, if a promised report starts looking negative, management sort of "loses steam" over it and it sits on their desk for months.

There is also another, more amorphous kind of pressure, where data that I collect that show a deficiency in our product are met with skepticism, doubts about my test methods or my understanding of them.

I am concerned about protecting my own name and integrity as a researcher. I also need to respect my employer's business objectives. What are some strategies that I could use for balancing these needs and for talking to my boss about issues where I see a conflict? I also want to know: is it normal to feel this kind of pressure from management?

18

Welcome to the ugly side of industry. This sort of thing happens a lot in medical, automotive, pro-sumer electronics, etc. You'll often have reps from your company on standards committees. With some companies, it's to improve standards and benefit everyone. With more aggressive companies, it's to steer and pervert the standard so it either benefits solely the company at the expense of other members, or saves them from having to do additional work, ie: "my way is the standard; adhere to it, and pay me royalties for the patent I took out on it. Never mind the fact that all members of the committee swore not to create patents which impact the freeness/fairness of the standard.".

Your best approach is to do what a Professional Engineer has to do in North America: document everything; require signatures.

In a previous role of mine where I saw blatant ethical violations, I found myself in a dilemma, since blowing the whistle would just screw me over and have little impact, and managers weren't listening to concerns. So, to protect myself from being the scapegoat if these violations ever came to light, I started documenting everything.

I'd make very short-and-simple two page reports for each study/project, including a short "Risk Assessment" paragraph at the end, where I voiced my concerns. Before lifting a finger, I required that both my supervisor and I sign it, with our names printed below. I scanned and saved a personal copy right in front of my superiors to make it known these things can't just disappear at the click of a button. Don't be sneaky about this, as companies typically have rules against taking home "company documents" without approval, with legal consequences if violated.

No managers every wanted to sign off on them, or rarely would. Eventually I stopped getting tasked with stupid work, since I refused to carry out projects without formal approval with the managers acknowledging my concerns officially. It probably hurt me in that company, so I eventually found a better job.

Note that this is an aggressive approach, and will likely irritate your supervisors and cost you promotions down the road. You get to decide yourself how much you value your professional integrity, and how much it matters to others. The fall from grace is always the hardest.


To answer your final question: yes, it's common, but not universal, to encounter this kind of pressure in academia and in industry, but usually only at the senior level. If junior/intermediate researchers are being exposed to this sort of thing, it's showing some serious incompetence on the part of leadership.

4

It's normal enough in some industries and some jobs. People want their job to be easier, if you're willing to help them do that, then they'll get you to. If it helps sales, downplays blemishes or anything else that is their concern, then they're interested in making that happen.

This is a question of personal ethics that you need to resolve. My position has always been that I won't do anything for my bosses that I strongly disagree with or that is blatantly illegal regardless of the consequences. So my method is just to outright refuse, if they insist, I outright refuse in writing, in which case they either do it my way or give it to someone else to do. It needs to be pretty clear cut wrong (in my mind) for me to go that far though because there are very real risks of repercussions. I've never held a job to be more important than my personal morality (however warped it may be) or integrity. And this has been a good reputation to cultivate in some ways, although I may have missed out in others.

But I can't see that in your case, there is nothing particularly outstanding and nothing that is outside normalish business practices. As a researcher, actually in almost any capacity, keep records, it's always best to have a personal paper trail to cover you if issues arise, just as a matter of course.

  • 1
    I give you the compliment (based on previous excellent posts of yours) that I assume that you draw the line at something being blatantly unethical, and not just illegal. Setting the bar at whether or not something is legal is very low compared to drawing some sort of ethical line. Certain duties I've been tasked with in the past were certainly legal, but very unethical, and I wouldn't do them. – DevNull Feb 25 '16 at 18:35
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    Yes you understood me well – Kilisi Feb 25 '16 at 20:04
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I think there are two approaches to this and which one you decide on doing is determined with how long you think you want to work at this company and how likely you will have the same reporting lines in years to come.

The Short Game

  • get all tests and research OK'ed by management.

  • perform just those tests

  • relay just those results

  • don't even sneak a peak on your own on other things

  • focus on timeliness and reporting

This is effectively working your way up. Managers will be very happy with you initially and view you as a team player. Your life will be easier. Imagine your life is the stock market - you would be a highly rated bond.

The Long Game

  • know industry standards and test according to those

  • educate yourself on future standards or upcoming test or research methods

  • educate your company on these

  • give them not only the data the asked for but the data you think they will need

  • give them data that could "out" their product, even if it is bad news

This could initially piss off your direct management, especially if you work at a non-progressive company or if you are surrounded by PMs and pencil pushers. If you were a part of the stock market you would be an IPO.

So the risk of the short game is that your research is deemed incomplete (find about issue with product after release, competitor finds an issue, conflicting research, whatever). You can point the finger at management and say you told me how to do my research and I followed your instructions. They would probably keep you employed but would know you are just some guy that does tests for them but offers little more.

The risk of the long game is that either you don't know enough about your research/industry to make these decisions or that management will act so hastily that they won't even keep you on board long enough to see an outcome. If you win the long game you are in the fast track at your company because you have probably saved them tenfold in money and issues. And once you start playing the long game and win you get free clearance to keep playing.

You could probably take some aspects between the two methods but really the more long game the more expertise you need and the more risk you will be taken initially. This is a decision on how much you want to bet on yourself.

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As long as you are being objective and factual you are doing your duty.

In my company it is rare for any performance test to ever be "doubted". If you have pouty managers with no scientific training trying to bully you about your scientific methods, then those behaviors should just be ignored for being what they are: childish.

To defend yourself against that kind of stuff, just make sure the test plans are crystal clear and everything is cut and dried. Don't try to verbally argue with idiots: just say nothing and hand them the documentation.

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    Meanwhile, back in the real World... – Simon B Feb 25 '16 at 13:21
  • I think a more active approach would be far more prudent. One can't just ignore tasks assigned by superiors. I do like the idea of having clear test plans, but I took it one step further by requiring formal acknowledgement in the form of signatures. Make sure you're covered in a legal sense, so you're not left holding the bag. – DevNull Mar 2 '16 at 0:01

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