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Ethics is needed to face changes in society that require submission to specific rules of conduct. An optimal balance between individual and collective rights is needed to govern actions and values. Codes are the foundations of religious and civic cultures.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ethics, a branch of philosophy, is defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”. Ethics examines what is right and what is wrong, trying to solve moral dilemmas such as how to decide what is good and bad, what is right and wrong and how to define the concept of justice.
Ethics derives from the Greek word ethos which means customs, and ‘morality’ is derived from the Latin word mos, which has a similar meaning, and was introduced by Cicero as an equivalent to the Greek ethos. Ethics and morality are often used as synonyms, but some argue that while ethics are directed by professional procedures in a specific time and place, morality transcends cultural codes, embodying individual values and beliefs.
Business ethics can be considered an extension of moral philosophy, the problem is that the definitions of right and wrong might have different meanings for different cultures and philosophical theories will not generally fit all organizations.
Business ethics is about honesty, integrity, loyalty, caring, respect. Most definitions of business ethics might be highly abstract, so that typical descriptions of rightness or wrongness of behaviour, or what is morally right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical, might not find everyone in agreement.
My ethical journeyAs for most people, my ethical journey started as a child and my first moral concepts took final shape in the first thirteen years of my life. My parents had the major role in influencing my idea of right and wrong.
In particular, being an expat child, I was changing Country and school every one to three years, being exposed to several different cultural and religious backgrounds, in North and West Africa, Middle East or South-East Asia. Of course, it was not always easy: for example, as a young teen, I could not understand why in in the Middle East I could not wear the same clothes as in Europe, or why I should not eat in public during Ramadan.
Fortunately, my parents were always present to care and explain, supporting me in opening my mind and in building my spirit of adaptation to continuous change, helping me to understand that even if difficult at the beginning, these experiences would enrich my ethical baggage for life.
And they were certainly right as when I started to work in the oilfield, I finished becoming an expat myself.
One experience that had a negative impact on me was in Nigeria in 2002. I was working for a big International E&P major. I was in my mid-twenties and for the first time exposed personally and professionally to a highly compromised environment where bribery and violence were explicitly part of business.
In that period, in fact, Nigerian history was marked by several bribery scandals. In search of higher profits, and in the oil and gas sector in particular, some Companies had been pushed towards unethical conduct through practices like bribery and corruption. The most ingloriously famous example was in 1994, when American Halliburton was accused to pay millions of dollars in bribes to Nigerian officials in exchange for engineering and construction work .
The worst episode in which I was personally involved was when I was kidnapped with some colleagues during the execution a job on site: in exchange of our liberation and to let us continue the job, the ‘villagers’ asked for a ransom, which at the end was granted.
I could not ethically accept the decision but had to deal with how transactions were conducted, also by Western Company, to assure continuation of work in the Country. I had to cope with the fact that, although there should be some universal moral principles that should be the same for everyone, some business practises had to follow the local and cultural settings.
Fortunately, that was really the worst episode in which I was involved. In the following years I had many positive experiences.
In the last twenty years ethics education has evolved. In particular, there are two dimensions of ethics that have been developed: the corporation’s ethical role in society (its ”corporate social responsibility” or CSR) and the corporation’s role in minimizing the destruction to, and maximizing the preservation of, resources for future generations (its ”sustainable management”).
In 2008, I was working in Tripoli, Libya, for a North American medium sized E&P Company. At that time, Oil Companies were starting to put in place CSR procedures and codes of conducts. It was really exciting to be part of the realisation of the Company Code of Conduct, made in respect of human rights, based on the culture of ethics and integrity at all organisational levels.
The big challenge was to align Libyan business with the highest global international ethical standards and in compliance with all applicable laws, anti-bribery and anti-corruption legislation, but keeping in mind ethical principles of the local reality.
In recent years I could experience business ethics expansion in many other sectors: from human welfare to biodiversity, ecological integrity and welfare of animals. Business cannot only serve itself, good business shouldn’t mean only good bottom line, but should involve all the aspects of human life and align to the aspiration of justice that human being hope for.
Recently I have embarked in an MBA in Leadership and Sustainability that has helped me comprehend that today, led by a strong leadership engagement, most Companies have ethically embraced the Triple Bottom Line, engaging in the three dimensions of sustainability (people, planet, profit).
ConclusionsMy journey to ethics started in the first years of my life and it is not yet finished: my international experiences have helped me understand that we are “one humanity, but seven billion humans” and that business ethics should account of global and particular natures.
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