Over the past 50 years, there has been growing attention on measuring corporations’ impacts beyond the traditional aspects of profits and shareholder earnings. Matters of social responsibility and sustainability have become more common, resulting in more widespread adoption of a 3P model of success which measures “profits, people, and planet”.
Attention to matters beyond profit originated in the financial management sectors as part of a wave of “responsible” investing. The adoption of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks helped companies report more holistically on their results. With increased public awareness and global challenges becoming more connected to business practices, ESG reporting has become more common across diverse sectors. However, there are still few reporting standards or uniform criteria, which can make it harder to collect and report on ESG data in a verifiable, standardized, and impactful way. Some companies have dealt with scandal for improperly reporting on their ESG findings. One prime example was Volkswagen facing its 2015 emissions scandal after having spent years recognized as a respected high ESG performer.
The Ontario branch of Canada’s Chartered Professional Accountants have questioned what the role of their accountants is in helping companies interpret their data and protect against misrepresenting their ESG results. Like accountants then, engineers and the companies they work for have a role to play in protecting and properly reporting on the social and environmental effects of their work. After all, one of the defining features shared by all self-regulating professions is setting and adhering to ethical, technical, and professional standards.
As part of their engineering work, practitioners and employers are expected to accept ethical responsibility and hold public safety and protection as paramount. While most engineers readily accept this responsibility as part of their professionalism, there is less agreement about what behaviours demonstrate acceptable social and environmental responsibility. Differences in how individual engineers perceive their social responsibilities develop over time based on the professional socialization process they are exposed to, including the educational institution they attend, the discipline they pursue, and the teachers and mentors they encounter.
Corporate context also affects individual engineers’ behaviours, since they do not operate independently from the environments in which they work. The priorities, values, rules, and responsibilities fostered by an entity, including the relevance of ESG activities and reporting, influences the accepted norms and behaviours of its engineering employees.
As creative problem solvers and innovators, engineers play vital roles in diverse domains that have significant social and environmental impacts. Regardless of the degree of social responsibility individual engineers identify, they can have an active role in influencing how ESG standards are measured and reported, helping to protect the reputation of their employers and the profession while also demonstrating a commitment to acknowledging the broader impacts of their work in society.
ESG can be an important tool for driving change rather than just a risk mitigation tool. Regulators can align their standards and enforcement tactics to recognize the importance of ESG and hold practitioners and firms accountable. A growing awareness and emphasis for the triple bottom line means the engineering profession, including the practitioners, entities, and regulators, can recognize their collective duties and contributions to society are more than just technical.
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Ivey Business School, Western University. Funded by CPA Ontario Thought Leadership Research.
Schecter, Barbara. (2021) Busines leaders split on idea of unleashing ‘warrior accountants’ on ESG issues. Financial Post.