Ethics: 'It's About You and Me'

Tinker Takes Common Sense Approach

Scott W. Tinker has a broad background in the oil and gas business, and more than a few things to say about professional ethics.

That's helpful, because AAPG recently named Tinker as its latest Distinguished Ethics Lecturer, the second in its specially focused series.

He began his series of presentations on ethics in April.

"It's been fascinating putting this whole thing together, to be candid. It's been an interesting thought exercise," Tinker said.

"I got to thinking about the complex global situation we're in. With business crossing national, social, cultural and religious boundaries, ethics vary by country and society," he noted.

For Tinker, the bottom line in ethics is individual conscience and behavior.

He calls his lecture "The 'I' in Business EthIcs."

That applies outside the business world, too.

"A professional organization like AAPG is only as good as its members," he said. "It's critical for all of us as individuals to represent our profession very well, and to adhere to the highest ethical standards out there."

According to Tinker, petroleum geologists must make a special effort to act and appear ethical, because so many people are quick to criticize and question the activities of the industry.

As he observed, society often views the petroleum industry on a "guilty until proven innocent" basis.

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Scott W. Tinker has a broad background in the oil and gas business, and more than a few things to say about professional ethics.

That's helpful, because AAPG recently named Tinker as its latest Distinguished Ethics Lecturer, the second in its specially focused series.

He began his series of presentations on ethics in April.

"It's been fascinating putting this whole thing together, to be candid. It's been an interesting thought exercise," Tinker said.

"I got to thinking about the complex global situation we're in. With business crossing national, social, cultural and religious boundaries, ethics vary by country and society," he noted.

For Tinker, the bottom line in ethics is individual conscience and behavior.

He calls his lecture "The 'I' in Business EthIcs."

That applies outside the business world, too.

"A professional organization like AAPG is only as good as its members," he said. "It's critical for all of us as individuals to represent our profession very well, and to adhere to the highest ethical standards out there."

According to Tinker, petroleum geologists must make a special effort to act and appear ethical, because so many people are quick to criticize and question the activities of the industry.

As he observed, society often views the petroleum industry on a "guilty until proven innocent" basis.

Unfortunately, that same skepticism can extend to individuals working in the industry, who may be seen as uncaring about ethical and social issues, Tinker noted.

"That's so far from the reality of the individuals I've been privileged to work with over the years," he said.

A Personal Choice

Tinker is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin. He's also a professor in the school's Department of Geological Sciences and serves as state geologist of Texas.

He received a degree in geology and business administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, and later earned his doctorate in geological sciences at the University of Colorado.

After holding several jobs in the oil industry, Tinker became advanced senior geologist at Marathon Oil's research facility in Littleton, Colo.

Today, Tinker continues to promote petroleum research and has testified before Congress in support of federal funding for oil and gas research programs.

Active in numerous professional and educational groups, Tinker previously served as an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer on the topic "Three-Dimensional Reservoir Characterization." He also was a Society of Petroleum Engineers Distinguished Lecturer on "The Role of Natural Gas in the Future of Global Energy."

The role of ethics lecturer differs from his other DL experiences, Tinker noted. It's a two-year appointment, and it's "more of a targeted approach" to a non-scientific subject, he said.

"I'm not trained as an ethicist, and I have not taken an immersion course in ethics," Tinker said.

Instead, he relies on a personal and common-sense approach to finding common ethical ground for all geologists.

Tinker's basic presentation includes a case-and-example look at ethics, focused on the oil and gas industry.

"There are also some cases outside of our industry that make a dramatic point," he added.

Geologists need a proactive and inclusive approach to ethics, Tinker believes.

In dealing with geological uncertainties, doubts can be as important as definitives. No one should omit vital information because it doesn't happen to fit a particular story or viewpoint, he said.

"It's important for us to represent everything we know, so things aren't left out of the decision-making process because of omission," he explained.

Creating ethical guidelines, like AAPG's Code of Ethics, can be a "healthy process," Tinker said. But ethical conduct remains a personal choice, he noted.

"As I got to looking at the problem, it was obvious that it wasn't going to be determined by laws or legislated in some way," he said.

The Gray Zone

Social norms and definitions of ethics vary by nation and culture, Tinker observed. What might be considered bribery in one culture may be an accepted business practice in another.

"No one owns the ethical high ground," he said. "Everybody thinks what they were raised with is the right way to go."

Tinker cited his own experiences in business and at the Bureau of Economic Geology in finding ethical ambiguities.

"We've been faced with situations where it's not black-and-white, where there's nothing totally right or totally wrong," he said.

That ethics "gray zone" is complicated by the intricate, interwoven, international world of business, where laws vary by country and ethics vary by culture and region, according to Tinker.

Still, it may be possible to create an ethical framework for individual decision-making, he said.

He proposed three general guidelines:

  • Consider transparency, impact and fairness in decision-making.
  • "When you look at those three things, the decision-making process becomes a little easier," he said.
  • Follow the spirit of the law.
  • "We quite often follow the letter of the law and think, 'As long as we can get a lawyer to say it's OK, we're all right,'" he noted.
  • Don't compromise beyond the point of your own personal reason.
  • "We all face these shades of gray, and we all have the power to say, 'That's something I just don't want to do,'" he said.

Ethical Leadership

Ethics have dominated the business headlines recently -- but most stories about business ethics have been negative, reflecting the tribulations of companies like Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, Tinker noted.

That reveals the importance of ethical leaders, he said.

Companies in trouble may have been guided by formal ethics policies, but not by ethical leadership. Ethical businesses are always dependent on ethical individuals as leaders, he said.

Enron and WorldCom didn't survive unethical leadership, but many organizations are able to move beyond ethical lapses at the top, Tinker noted.

"Although the leaders of business are important, in the end a well-functioning business or country will survive through even the worst leadership," he said.

In business, ethics ultimately concern the choices and actions of a group of individuals. Business ethics "is not about business," Tinker observed, "it's about you and me."

Ethics inherent to a business operation reflect the ethical choices made by all the individuals in that business.

The harder the struggle with ethics, the closer we may be to ethical behavior, Tinker said.

Correct choices are rarely simple, and ethical actions are often difficult, he noted:

"It's tough to look your boss -- or your boss's boss -- in the eye and say, 'I just don't think that's ethical.'"

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