January's hypothetical ethics question -- dealing with geologists' ethical use of their own expertise -- drew responses that were both academic and practical.
The question was:
A geologist leaves a company to enter a consulting business. While employed at the company, the geologist acquired substantial expertise regarding a particular geologic basin -- or apppcation of a particular methodology.
In what ways can the geologist ethically make use of the expertise?
Does it make a difference if the employer is abandoning the basin?
Does it make a difference if the geologist has become a consultant due to company "downsizing?"
Martin Wolff, with Fina Oil and Chemical Co. in Houston, referenced his response by citing an actual recent event.
"In view of the recent Shell/Unocal 8 saga, this question is of particular interest," Wolff wrote.
In this era of free-agent technical professionals, one of the strongest things we have to offer a potential employer is expertise gained by working on relevant technical issues. Obviously we should not (and legally can not) divulge specific company secrets to competitors. However, general expertise in an area and application of particular methodologies is difficult to erase from the gray cells just because of a company change.
In the case of the Unocal 8, I understand that the group signed an agreement with Unocal promising not to use any proprietary Shell information before they even began to work for Unocal. Given that, the attempted subsequent lawsuit by Shell was a blatant attempt to intimidate potential employers from giving other Shell employees the opportunity to exercise their rights.
Given the current round of severe layoffs Shell (and just about everyone else) is engaged in, it is clear that the group did well to bail out for a premium when they did. With the lack of commitment from most companies toward employees (with some exceptions, to be fair), I believe it is only right and sensible for us to take upon ourselves the responsibility for our own professional development, which includes gaining valuable and marketable expertise.
This isn't radical, it's simple free-market survival!
The issue of the employer abandoning the basin and the way in which the employee leaves a company are pretty irrelevant ethically -- although I'm sure there would be a strong personal satisfaction in being downsized from one company and then making a significant discovery for a competitor in the same area.
Midland, Texas, independent Will Green compared a geologist's expertise to "tools of the trade," and helped to clarify the situation by describing three scenarios.
Geologic expertise or knowledge about a particular methodology gained by a geologist during employment becomes part of his/her ‘tools of the trade' for future use as a consultant. These tools could be used ethically or unethically, and careful discretion must be exercised.
- Unethical use: The former employer has an ongoing lease acquisition effort on a defined prospect or trend. If the new consultant puts clients in competition with the former employer, this activity would be unethical.
- Ethical use: If the former employer intentionally allows its leases or options to expire, the new consultant could use his knowledge to interest others in the area.
- Ethical use: If the former employer has decided to abandon its play in a basin where the former employee has expertise, the former employer could retain the new consultant to help it farm out the prospects it no longer wants to drill. This could be a win/win situation.
Ray Blackhall, with Cosara Energy in Spring, Texas, shared some thoughts on the ethical use of expertise based on personal experience.
A geologist leaving a company to become a consultant or, the much more common situation today, being 'downsized,' needs to use his or her best assets to further their career -- or simply to survive. If their expertise has been developed working one particular methodology or geological basin, it is in this person's best interest to continue using this expertise.
If the company, as in the example, is abandoning the basin, so much the better -- unless, of course, everyone else is.
Basins can cover broad geographic areas. If the unlucky individual had a contract or non-compete agreement covering an entire basin or concept, then the area or method should be hands-off.
Leaving a large company, this scenario is unlikely.
Certainly, the individual should refrain from working directly on anything that could be construed to be a conflict of interest, such as a prospect leased by the former employer or within an existing area of mutual interest. Competition -- fair competition -- is what our business has always been about. The geologist may pursue the basin or idea without directly interfering with the former employer.
This also may be a good idea from a practical standpoint, because the former employer may also be able to and agreeable to sharing or supplying data, or farming out acreage. This can be an excellent way for a new consultant, whether by personal choice or not, to retain contacts, obtain data, farm-out prospective acreage and, thus, continue a career.
It worked for me 20 years ago.