Soft Skills

Ethics and Integrity Matter in the Workplace, Part I

For many engineers, it helps to discuss ethical dilemmas with their colleagues and seek guidance for the appropriate application of a code of ethics.

Many professional and technical societies have ethical guidelines for their members. SPE’s Guide for Professional Conduct for SPE members includes a Preamble, The Fundamental Principle, and 12 Canons of Professional Conduct. The canons (see next page) detail the expectations of SPE professionals in the areas of competency, societal and work consequences, honesty in presenting information, ethics, conflicts of interest, nonbiased actions, personal responsibility, impact on public health and safety, environmental impact, multidisciplinary work, and observation of the law.

Registration as a professional will often have an ethics component to the testing for licensure (that is, the granting of a license which gives permission to practice) and an annual requirement for continuing education in ethics. The National Society of Professional Engineers in the United States has a Code of Ethics for Engineers with these Fundamental Canons, stating that “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  • Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
  • Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  • Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  • Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  • Avoid deceptive acts.
  • Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.”

An employer that encourages and nurtures a pervasive culture of ethical behavior is taking a crucial step toward ensuring long-term superior performance and competitive advantage. Important corporate commitments such as sustainability and social responsibility have higher chances of success in companies where strong ethics permeate the corporate culture. Providing case studies of actual situations illustrating violations of codes of ethics helps employees to understand the potential consequences of ethical violations and their own roles and responsibilities with regard to ethical behavior.

Society of Petroleum Engineers Canons of Professional Conduct

  1. Engineers offer services in the areas of their competence and experience, affording full disclosure of their qualifications.
  2. Engineers consider the consequences of their work and societal issues pertinent to it and seek to extend public understanding of those relationships.
  3. Engineers are honest, truthful, ethical, and fair in presenting information and in making public statements that reflect on professional matters and their professional role.
  4. Engineers engage in professional relationships without bias because of race, religion, gender, age, ethnic or national origin, attire, or disability.
  5. Engineers act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, disclosing nothing of a proprietary or confidential nature concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer without the necessary consent.
  6. Engineers disclose to affected parties any known or potential conflicts of interest or other circumstances that might influence, or appear to influence, judgment or impair the fairness or quality of their performance.
  7. Engineers are responsible for enhancing their professional competence throughout their careers and for encouraging similar actions by their colleagues.
  8. Engineers accept responsibility for their actions, seek and acknowledge criticism of their work, offer honest and constructive criticism of the work of others, properly credit the contributions of others, and do not accept credit for work not their own.
  9. Engineers, perceiving a consequence of their professional duties to adversely affect the present or future public health and safety, shall formally advise their employers or clients, and, if warranted, consider further disclosure.
  10. Engineers seek to adopt technical and economical measures to minimize environmental impact.
  11. Engineers participate with other professionals in multidisciplinary teams to create synergy and to add value to their work product.
  12. Engineers act in accordance with all applicable laws and the canons of ethics as applicable to the practice of engineering as stated in the laws and regulations governing the practice of engineering in their country, territory, or state, and lend support to others who strive to do likewise.

The Complexities of Ethical Quandaries

Ethics can be complex, without clear answers. The Decision Framework developed by the Ethics Subcommittee of the Society of Petroleum Engineers can help the petroleum professional make sound decisions when faced with complex ethical issues. The following are key questions to ask:

  • Would the resulting action be legal?
  • Would stakeholders see the action as responsible stewardship?
  • Would I feel good about the resulting action?
  • Would I mind having information regarding the decision publicized?
  • Have I consulted with peers/others regarding the perceived action and possible ramifications?
  • Would the public view the perceived act as a responsible professional action?

A Corporate Culture of Ethics

Companies can enhance their ethical competency in a fashion similar to the way safety best practices are learned. Ethics can best be instilled in a corporate culture through programs of awareness, advocacy, and alarm systems.

  • Awareness—Engineers need to have examples and definitions of when, where, and how ethical quandaries arise. Some employers post ethics alerts in a visible location on their internal websites to provide employees with real-world examples of ethical violations. In addition to starting a meeting with a safety moment, include an ethical moment.
  • Advocacy—Ethical behavior should be promoted via websites, continuing education, and promotional events in a method similar to the way our industry promotes safety.
  • Alarm—“Stop Work Authority” establishes the authority and obligation of any individual to stop work when an unsafe condition or act could result in an undesirable event. The “you-see-it/you-own-it” role should also be applied to ethics, so engineers are required to deal with ethical dilemmas when they are encountered in the workplace. Some employers provide a hotline contact number so employees can report activities that may involve violations of law.

“Integrity and Ethics” is one category of soft skills addressed by the SPE Soft Skills Council. Early in their career, SPE student members begin to develop their own perspectives on behaviors they see as exemplifying excellence in the areas of integrity and ethics. The ethical behavioral patterns they establish early in their career will help them establish a solid reputation as a professional.

Establishing an ethical culture in an organization requires more than just teaching the values and concepts we have just discussed.

It requires actions at every level of an organization to reinforce the corporate culture such that the company really supports and encourages employees to behave ethically, even if it takes more time or costs more money. That is, an organization is not always ethical unless everyone acting on its behalf acts ethically.

Acting ethically, in the final analysis, involves treating people with dignity, respect, and in the way you would like to be treated by others. We have to look at each interaction from the other person’s point of view as well as from our own.

We must consider how to make ethical decisions in our work. What is important is to continue to sharpen our skills in order to recognize and appropriately respond to ethical dilemmas.


“SPE Guide for Professional Conduct,” SPE Member Guide. Society of Petroleum Engineers,

“NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.” National Society of Professional Engineers,

Fattahi, Behrooz; Howes, Susan; Milanovich, Narandja; and Paccaloni, Giovanni (2012). “Soft Skills Council: A New SPE Initiative.” Journal of Petroleum Technology 64(8) 52–55.

Susan Howes is an organizational capability consultant in the Reservoir Management Department at Chevron, with prior assignments as reservoir management consultant in the Reservoir Management Framework Group and as manager of the Horizons Program. She formerly was the learning and organizational development manager at Anadarko. Howes is a petroleum engineer skilled in reservoir management, business development, knowledge management, economic analysis, portfolio rationalization, and petroleum engineering, with experience in the US Rockies, midcontinent, Permian Basin, and offshore Gulf of Mexico, as well as several other locations throughout the world. A petroleum engineering graduate of The University of Texas, she is the Chevron UT recruiting team lead for petroleum engineering and drilling. Howes is Chevron Women’s Network president, having previously served as its vice president. Howes currently serves on the SPE Soft Skills Council.


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