Keeping engineers honest: Canada's 'iron ring' tradition

Ritual dating back to 1922 seeks to remind graduates of their ethical obligations – while one business school has also adopted the idea

June 16, 2016
Group of engineers in discussion
Source: Alamy
Material witness: Canada’s engineers, it is said, are likely to reach for their rings when weighing important decisions

If you ever meet an engineering graduate of a Canadian university, take a look at the little finger of their writing hand. In all likelihood, they will be wearing a plain iron ring.

This is part of tradition that stretches back to 1922 – and which emerged in the context of early 20th-century bridge collapses – in which graduating engineers take part in a ritual written by Rudyard Kipling to remind them of their ethical obligations to society as they set off into the profession.  

The practice, which advocates say is effective in keeping engineers honest, raises the wider question of whether oaths and rings can bind graduates to good behaviour when they leave campus – something particularly pertinent to business schools in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.

“The ritual and ring certainly do still have an impact” on engineers’ professional conduct, argues Leonard Shara, chief warden of the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, an independent Canadian body that administers the ceremonies.

During the ritual, graduating engineers and the ceremony leader each grasp a link of a long iron chain that connects to a “very used” anvil, he explains. As they hold the chain, the group recites the Kipling-authored “oath of obligation”, he adds. “This is a powerful moment, one which most will remember forever.”

Engineers vow they will “not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, bad workmanship or faulty material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own soul before my Maker”.

Shara says he is reminded of this obligation when he sees his iron ring while shaving. “Many obligated engineers have told me how meaningful the obligation ceremony was to them,” he says.  

Whether or not rings, oaths and rituals make a difference “depends very much on the person involved and the impact that the ceremony…makes on them”, says Ron Gilkie, a former chief warden of a branch of the Corporation of the Seven Wardens.

“I can only pass on the comments I have heard from many senior engineers who say that in many instances in their careers, when faced with a difficult decision, they will find themselves reaching for their rings as they ponder their response,” he says. “I have done so many times myself, so I am not surprised to hear this.”

Gilkie says “most if not all” Canadian engineers wear their rings, and the corporation often sends out replacements to engineers who have lost them after taking them off to work in places where jewellery is not allowed.

The practice has spread to some engineering schools in the US, and even to a Canadian business school.

Since the financial crisis, business schools have agonised over how to keep their graduates honest. The MBA oath, which sees students pledge not to put their interests above the rest of society, originated at Harvard Business School in 2009 and spread to business schools across the world.

But despite initial enthusiasm, the number of new MBA students taking the oath has dried up (although those at Harvard have kept faith with the idea).

In 2012, DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, based in Hamilton, Ontario, launched rings for graduating MBA students explicitly based on the iron ring tradition to remind them of their “commitment to principles of ethics and integrity upon graduation”.

Times Higher Education did not receive a response to a query about whether the scheme has been successful, although the rings (available in large or small, priced at C$195 (£107)) are still on sale.

UK business schools and universities also appear to be doing a roaring trade in graduation rings, albeit without any explicit intention to strengthen graduates’ ethical side in the workplace.  

A London-based jeweller, Eva & Eva, offers graduates products ranging from signet rings to a £325 golden band.

“In the early years graduation rings were still a niche product but it has grown a lot in the past few years and is particularly popular among those giving it to someone graduating as a gift,” a spokeswoman for the jeweller said. 

The US appears to be one step ahead, however, with one company, Jostens, offering not only gemstone-encrusted rings but graduation dog tags, which can cost more than $1,000 (£690). “Your one-of-a-kind collegiate story never looked so good,” its brochure says.

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Print headline: Putting an iron ring on it: how Canadian engineers keep ethics close at hand

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