Ethics, BP, & Decision-Making Under Pressure

Over the last couple of months, criticism of BP has become an international pastime. It’s hard not to get the impression that most members of the public believe that senior managers at BP (and quite possibly everyone employed at BP) are bungling fools. And probably lazy too.

But of course, that’s patently absurd. And maybe nobody actually believes it. We all know that the relevant people at BP are smart and highly-trained. They wouldn’t have the jobs they have if they weren’t. True, no one was very happy with the amount of time it took to get the oil well capped. And almost certainly mistakes were made. But the capping of the well was a feat of enormous technical difficulty and complexity, carried out under intense scrutiny. Few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can imagine performing well under those circumstances.

Here’s a story that speaks to the difficulty of those circumstances, by Clifford Krauss, Henry Fountain and John M. Broder, writing for the NYT: Behind Scenes of Gulf Oil Spill, Acrimony and Stress. Here’s just a sample, though the whole article is well worth reading:

Whether the four-month effort to kill it was a remarkable feat of engineering performed under near-impossible circumstances or a stumbling exercise in trial and error that took longer than it should have will be debated for some time.

But interviews with BP engineers and technicians, contractors and Obama administration officials who, with the eyes of the world upon them, worked to stop the flow of oil, suggest that the process was also far more stressful, hair-raising and acrimonious than the public was aware of….

So, after reading the NYT piece, ask yourself these questions:

1) If, in the middle of the well-capping operation, you (yes you) had been invited to stop playing armchair quarterback and become part of the team working on a solution, would you have? Assume you had some relevant expertise. Would you have agreed to help? I’m not sure I would have. I would have been seriously reluctant to subject myself (and my family!) to that kind of experience.

2) Assuming you accepted the above invitation, how confident are you that you would have performed well?

3) Finally, setting aside your own willingness and ability to help, do you know of any organization that you are confident could have performed well in a) a task of that technical difficulty and complexity, while b) under similar conditions of intense scrutiny?

None of this is intended to be fully exculpatory. It’s quite likely that there were ethical lapses that contributed to the blowout and the oil spill that resulted. But when we’re thinking about BP’s response to the disaster, our assessment of the company’s performance — and specifically the performance of the thousands of individuals who actually did the work — ought to be informed by an appreciation of the nature of the task performed. Ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. And in some cases, they’re made in the middle of a hurricane.

12 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    “We all know that the relevant people at BP are smart and highly-trained. They wouldn’t have the jobs they have if they weren’t.”

    That’s a wild assumption. Please support.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Seems a fair assumption for people with highly responsible positions, who likely had to out-compete dozens or perhaps hundreds of other candidates for their jobs.
      But fine. Assume differently. (Or tone down my assumption to this: the people involved are mostly basically competent.) It doesn’t change my basic point, here.

  2. David Bevan on

    Chris I think you do a great job keeping these topics in the ethical eye of a large community of at least temporarily-concerned observers (students). Nonetheless, I agree with Anonymous here – your claim that “the relevant people at BP are smart and highly-trained” is, to use your own complacent terminology, ‘patently absurd’.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      See my response to anonymous. But frankly, you’re both entirely missing the point. So instead, feel free to assume that whatever you want instead. If it suits you better, assume everyone at BP is utterly inept, poorly-qualified, and stupid. Assume a hugely successful corporation got that way by hiring dummies. I don’t see how such an uncharitable assumption helps us understand the situation any better. And it doesn’t change my point one bit.

  3. Lorraine Whellams on

    I have worked for a very long time within a large bureaucracy and learned long ago that very often, dead wood floats to the top. However, I still agree with Chris that thousands of people make up corporations/public institutions who are competent, well educated, responsible and caring. Usually those are the people solving problems and slogging in the trenches….not the people at the top who get the photo ops.

    I am surprised though that the responses to this article focussed on that one statement rather than the 3 intriguing questions that you posed Chris.

    As for whether or not BP performed well under the circumstances, we must remember that not only were they dealing with the media, but varying levels of government, activists, locals…the list goes on. All things considered, I probably couldn’t have done a better job.

  4. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.
    I’ll just re-emphasize: this blog entry isn’t intended to let anyone in particular off the hook. It’s just to suggest that we understand problems better if we have a realistic understanding of the context in which decisions are made and actions are taken. And that we shouldn’t let frustration with the well-capping efforts distract us from what are likely much better targets for our anger.


  5. arfur on

    What ethical violations occurred during the spill? As far as I’m concerned, the ethical problem occurred prior to the event – drilling for oil in such a deep, technically difficult, complex environment without taking the necessary precautions and planning for a worst-case scenario. BP should have known beforehand how to contain a spill if one were to occur. Is that too much to expect from smart, highly-trained and paid employees? Then again, is it BPs fault the regulatory environment was (maybe still is) corrupt?

    As for the repsonse, we can appreciate the task and context but we’ll never know well they performed because the spill was an entirely unprecedented event. Was four months and x attempts reasonable? Seeing that such smart people actually resorted to golf balls and garbage before the real solution, I think not.

  6. Chris MacDonald on


    Ethical violations during the spill? None that I know of.

    As for the golf balls, etc., I have no reason to think that was a silly idea. In fact, when an idea to solve a complex problem is proposed by people who are experts in that domain, there’s good prima facie reason to assume it is a good idea, or at least not a silly one.


  7. Tim Bousquet on

    Here’s a crazy idea– how ’bout we don’t be doing stuff with potential Gulf-killing consequences– like drilling a mile below the surface- until we know for certain it’s safe, have a strong regulatory regime to enforce safety measures, and can deal with accidents in a timely manner. None of that was the case.

  8. Chris MacDonald on

    Tim, I’m pretty sure you’re not the first person to suggest those things.

  9. Dan Wheeler on

    Making decisions under such international scrutiny must have been so stressful.

  10. […] Last, but not lease, British Petroleum (BP) is #14 on the list (and labelled “the most obvious choice to be on a list of hated companies”) has of course appeared here several times this year, including in “BP and Corporate Social Responsibility”, and “Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical”, and “Ethics, BP, & Decision-Making Under Pressure”. […]

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