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Shell Whistleblowers Helpline (perhaps a bit late in the light of recent events)

Alfred Donovan

(The Wall Street Journal sketch above is reproduced
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Friday, 15 September 2006

By Alfred Donovan

With news of Shell being fined $138 million by the EU for masterminding an illegal cartel, this seems like an appropriate time to write an article about the introduction of the “Shell Global Helpline”. 

In case you have not yet heard about this Shell initiative, it is an internet based facility for whistleblowers to report alleged violations of the law or of Shell General Business Principles (the SGBP); the Shell code of ethics pledging transparency, integrity and honesty in all of Shell’s business dealings.

It is relevant to note in regards to the SGBP that Shell International General Counsel, Richard Wiseman, has admitted in one of his revealing emails to me that they were not drafted for use in the courts. Hence like a bet with a bookie, they are binding in honour only.  Consequently they amount to a confidence trickster’s charter and were repeatedly used as such to bolster the credibility of the inflated reserves data contained in Shell’s Form 20F filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Before going any further, I invite readers to play a simple word association game. Which set of words – “A” or “B” – do you most associate in general terms with Shell management and recent and current Shell executive directors e.g. Sir Philip Watts and Malcolm Brinded.

(A) Decent, modest, respectful, honest, ethical, transparent, competent, upright, generous, unselfish, moral, trustworthy, good, sincere, candid, honourable, conscientious, caring, and considerate.

(B) Ruthless, egomaniacal, fraudulent, crooked, scandalous, price-fixing, deceitful, exploitive, pollutive, greedy, incompetent, immoral, untrustworthy, devious, shameless, unscrupulous, cold-blooded, and aggressive.

If you feel that set “A” is the most appropriate, then there is no need to read further. I am sure you will feel safe in leaving the reputation of Shell in the hands of Shell executives.  On the other hand if you opt for set B, then it makes it even more important that the Shell Global Helpline is credible, rather than being just another example of a Shell PR project designed to fool the gullible. 

Shell management believes the “Shell Global Helpline” is of “critical importance” in protecting Shell’s reputation. An independent firm, “Global Compliance”, has been retained to receive information and complaints. Such complaints will be passed to the Shell Group where authorised persons “will ensure they are dealt with in a professional and confidential manner.” Whistleblowers will be asked to provide identity details but anonymous reports will also be accepted. The Helpline is available to “customers, suppliers, partners, advisors and employees of Shell”.

Clicking on the relevant URL (https://www.compliance-helpline.com/Shell.jsp) reveals what appears to be a Shell website. In fact the facility is farmed out to an American corporation: Global Compliance Services, Inc.

The following is an extract from their website: “Global Compliance’s Information Reporting offerings accommodate the confidential and anonymous submission of information specific to allegations or incidents through telephony or web vehicles. Individual reports are rapidly distributed to the client organization using client-defined protocols.” Global Compliance provides the reporting service to many companies “including nearly one-half of America’s Fortune 100”.

However, after the “information” is collected, it ultimately ends up with Shell management, exactly as before. In other words the same executives famed for turning a blind eye to inconvenient “information” i.e. alleged misdeeds, will be able to continue with the same culture of putting profit before ethics. 

BP has just set up its own whistleblower facility as a consequence of its recent problems in Alaska and elsewhere. It involves a dedicated team which only handles information relating to BP. It is headed by a distinguished former U.S. District Judge, Stanley Sporkin.  BP America chairman and president, Bob Malone, said in a recent e-mail circulated to BP employees that Sporkin “is empowered to do whatever is necessary to assemble the facts AND identify solutions for problem.” He said Sporkin and a small staff would answer calls from a phone service that will operate 24 hours a day.

Consequently Judge Sporkin will provide much more than an initial processing service which, in Shell’s case, is shared by hundreds of other companies and which, in reality, actually delays the “information” from reaching executives in client companies able to take decisions.

In summary, the Shell Global Helpline inserts an extra level of time consuming bureaucracy involving a third party company which has no power to do anything other than provide PR window dressing and deal with initial paperwork.  In other words more smoke and mirrors, more BS.

A more credible whistleblower facility would ideally need to combine the BP style whistleblower facility with an independent “arbitrator” who could actually make decisions to resolve issues put forward by a complainant or a whistleblower in a way the arbitrator believes to be fair and proper. Both parties involved – the complainant and Shell, would need to agree that the arbitrator decision or action would be binding.

There is precedence. Last year Royal Dutch Shell issued proceedings against me via the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in respect of a number of Internet domain names, including the top level domain name for Royal Dutch Shell Plc: www.royaldutchshellplc.com. WIPO decisions are binding. Shell obviously did not like the result (I received a unanimous decision in my favour by a three person panel of lawyers). Richard Wiseman bitched about the decision in an email he sent to me last November, but Shell management, to its credit, accepted the WIPO verdict, even though it is highly embarrassing for the company that its most prolific critic owns it’s dotcom domain name.

If an arbitration system was available for dealing with complaints (free or at a fixed cost) and with whistleblower allegations, a considerable amount of litigation and/or revelations damaging to Shell’s reputation could be avoided. It might more importantly save lives. It would certainly be good for individuals and small businesses in dispute with Shell who are often forced to abandon a claim not because it is without merit, but simply because they cannot afford “justice”. It would be good for Shell from a PR and monetary standpoint as it would avoid many cases of long drawn out expensive litigation or investigations which create bad publicity for Shell, with the company inevitably being cast, usually accurately in my experience, as an underhanded multinational bully.

The pedigree of the Shell Global Helpline is not encouraging:  The “whistleblower” facility was set up during the tenure of Jyoti Munsiff, the first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of Royal Dutch Shell Plc. As I have already pointed out, Miss Munsiff was discredited before she even started in the new role having been complicit as Company Secretary of Shell Transport and Trading Co Plc in conspiring to prevent “information” from reaching the delicate ears of Shell shareholders. Her co-conspirators’ were Richard Wiseman, and Shell Chairman, Mark Moody-Stuart.  All three were determined to conceal from shareholders the top secret terms of an agreement signed by Shell Managing Director David Varney and by my son and I. 

This was far from being the only occasion when Miss Munsiff acted contrary to the best interests of shareholders. She has put her loyalty to certain Shell executive directors before obligations to shareholders. That is unacceptable conduct for a Company Secretary of a PLC. It is interesting to note that Shell has already issued High Court proceedings in respect of an email sent by former Shell geologist, Dr John Huong, directly to Miss Munsiff in which he offered her information and constructive help.  His reward was contempt of court proceedings seeking his imprisonment.  The court papers cite his email to Munsiff.  Under the circumstances (and as I have pointed out previously) appointing Miss Munsiff to be the first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of Royal Dutch Shell Plc was analogous to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse. I understand that Miss Munsiff is retiring, so we can only hope that her replacement has a more blemish free track record.

Other negative signs about the real attitude to whistleblowers and complainants: The former Group Auditor of Shell International, Mr Bill Campbell has also been subjected to the wrath of Shell executives after blowing the whistle on the Brent Bravo scandal. His warnings to Malcolm Brinded about falsification of safety regime documents and flawed repairs were ignored. Profits were given higher priority than safety. This inappropriate attitude subsequently cost the lives of two Shell workers. A record breaking fine of some $1.6 million (£900,000) was imposed on Shell by the Health & Safety Executive and Shell admitted responsibility for the tragic deaths. Mr Campbell was rewarded for the integrity of his safety audit by having his reputation impugned by Shell.

Such a hostile reaction by Shell management to courageous whistleblowers such as Dr Huong and Bill Campbell is unlikely to encourage other would be whistleblowers from stepping forward. Perhaps that explains the hostility.

Another indicator of Shell management’s real attitude to inviting complaints and whistleblower revelations is its conduct in respect of the TellShell Internet Discussion Forum. It was “suspended” with a promised return in the near future almost a year ago.  The facility was ended after Richard Wiseman admitted in an email to me that Shell had engaged in censorship of “TellShell” postings. This was not due to profane or obscene language being posted, but simply because Shell management does not want to receive criticism or complaints.

My conclusion has to be that the Shell Global Helpline in its current guise is just another load of empty hype and spin (puff and BS) in line with the SGBP and the Shell Sustainability Report. I have provided some constructive suggestions for giving the facility some credibility, but I won’t be holding my breath.

My views on Shell providing an alternative dispute resolution is in keeping with a conversation I had with the admirable Sir John Jennings, when he was Chairman of Shell over a decade ago. Miss Munsiff kindly supplied me with a copy of the transcript of the conversation. If Shell had taken up my suggestions, a number of subsequent Shell scandals might have been avoided.  Royal Dutch Shell Plc might not exist and Shell’s reputation might still be intact. As Maggie Thatcher remarked after being deposed as the Prime Minister of Britain, it’s a funny old world. 

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