What's Ahead

The Future of Ethics

Thomas Bruni, Editor, The Way Ahead

A simple Google search for “ethics” returns approximately 60 million pages. One for “business ethics” gives almost 30 million results (i.e., one of every two Web pages on the general topic of “ethics” is actually related to business).  But, if we searched for “life ethics,” the results would be only slightly more than 20 million.

These figures seem to indicate that people are more preoccupied about “ethics” when doing their job than when living their lives, as if they would rather function by ethical principles at work than anywhere else. The results may indeed suffer from a distortion due to the corporate scandals of the past few years, which are still in the back of our minds like fire under the ashes—but so they are.

However, judging by the amount of resources available on the subject of “business ethics,” one may be inclined to think that the issue (or problem) has been comprehensively addressed and even solved—ethical behavior is not any more “at risk.” Do we indeed feel this way? I dare say that the general perception is quite the opposite. The large availability of material on the subject is screaming for help and attention: ethical behavior at work is considered everything but granted.

This issue of The Way Ahead looks at this multifaceted prism from different perspectives. Our goal is to interpret the rainbow of different opinions and ideas in order to understand whether our industry is immune to the “ethics” issue and, if not, how it is going to deal with it and how we as young professionals come into the picture—if at all.

In The Way Ahead Interview, Shell’s Chief Executive Officer Jeroen van der Veer admits that his company “has been through some tough times over the last year or so” because of “the reserves recategorizations” issue, which itself would not have existed in the first place had all ethical “best practices” been followed.

When  asked,  “Do  you  see  any   divergence between what the company’s procedure on ethical behavior is and what it ultimately does?”, more than one-third of the polled young E&P professional (YEPP) population answered, “Some divergence” (see the full survey results in the Forum section), reinforcing the perception that the industry has not yet been fully vaccinated against nonethical behaviors—at least from our perspective.

The above excerpts give evidence indicating that the problem (the “ethics” issue) is real, but at the same time there is an encouraging factor of awareness, which is the sine qua non condition for addressing a problem. You cannot fight what you cannot see.

The issue then becomes one of commitment. Does our industry (or, better, do the people in our industry) have the energy, the nerves, and, above all, the willingness to rebound?

There are promising signs that point in this direction. Van der Veer talks about “honesty, integrity, and respect for people” as core values in Shell. Weldon Mire, Vice President Human Resources of Halliburton, says in this issue’s HR Advice section, “Ethics are the principles and values by which our company operates. It is the DNA of how we go about doing our daily business. It is how we import good behaviors to communities, shareholders, and employees. It is the right side of all actions.”

Thus, our management seems to have committed to a strategy that embraces ethics as one of its underpinning values. But, ultimately, and more so in view of the big “crew change” that will take place in the coming years because of the aging E&P work force, it will be us, young professionals, who will be called upon to implement these ideas and disseminate these values. So, the missing piece of the puzzle is the following: Are we ready and willing to do just that? Are we going to follow an ethical conduct that, by definition, will dictate our actions in the best general interest?

Going back to the Forum, when asked, “Are you encouraged by your company to perform your duties in an ethical manner?” our polled YEPP population answers, “Yes/Mostly yes,” with an overwhelming majority (95%). Rafi Khouri, author of one of the articles in the YEPP PerSPEctive section, writes that (when operating in developing countries) “Although western producers had the option of following the local health, safety, and environment policies, they all applied the same high ethical and moral standards as their operations in the West.”

The answer to the questions posed above seems a no-brainer—yes.