For the last two years I have attended Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) March shareholders meeting in Mountain View, CA, and I have asked HP’s Senior Vice President and Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer, Ashley Watson, for an example of how HP’s ethical business practices have changed the way they do business with a client. Every time, she has been unable to provide me with an example.
Admittedly, doing business in this politically diverse world is a complicated task. The Mubaraks of today may be just an Arab spring away from the Egypt of tomorrow. Ditto that for Assad and Syria, Castro and Cuba, Chavez and Venezuela, etc… However, even in the midst of this complexity, companies are still required to implement policies of business ethics to guide them through the minefields of local and international law, human rights, environmental sustainability, and political upheaval to name but a few. They must implement these policies not just to comply with the law or laws, but also to preserve the integrity of their brand, the integrity of their employees, and the integrity of their clients. And above all, they must implement these policies because it is the right thing to do.
I attended this year’s annual HP shareholders meeting (as a former employee and shareholder) along with a Presbyterian Church (USA) colleague to support a simple shareholder resolution to establish a Board Committee on Human Rights. The resolution was proposed by a socially responsible investor and has the support of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The reason that the MRTI Committee, and others who are concerned about human rights are focusing on especially on HP is that HP’s products and services are being used to foster the violation of the human rights in Syria, China, and Israel/Palestine.
In the days of yore, HP was known not only for well-designed products but for what was called the “HP way.” In the words of co-founder Bill Hewlett, the HP Way is:
“a core ideology … which includes a deep respect for the individual, a dedication to affordable quality and reliability, a commitment to community responsibility, and a view that the company exists to make technical contributions for the advancement and welfare of humanity.”
In 2010, HP was named as one of the most ethical companies in the world, one of the most admired and number one for social responsibility. So, you might rightly ask, why on earth would such a resolution be necessary if HP is numero uno for social responsibility? Well, because more often than we care to acknowledge, a company’s ethics policies clash with the bottom line – its profits!
It should be pointed out that on the surface, HP has an excellent statement of business ethics. The question is whether this amounts to little more than window dressing. For instance, in HP’s rebuttal to the proposed shareholder resolution mentioned above, HP boasted that its Global Human Rights Policy establishes “HP’s commitment to integrating respect for human rights throughout its business. It commits HP to complying with laws and regulations or international standards—whichever are more stringent locally—and a range of other best-practice measures.”
This is all quite an achievement – no wonder HP was named as one of the most ethical companies in the world and number one in social responsibility! But that’s what makes their actions in the“settlement” of Ariel in Israel/Palestine all the more troubling.
HP designed, installed, and supports a scalable municipal storage network for the Israeli Jewish-only settlement of Ariel, which marketing literature describes as located in the “middle of Israel, …halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” In another sidebar (pictured right), Ariel is described as located in the “heart” of Israel. Nowhere in the literature or on its included map does HP mention that as a settlement, Ariel is considered to be a violation of international law – or that Ariel is located deep within the West Bank, in Palestinian territory. The literature also fails to mention that this settlement, like all the settlements that Israel has built, is built on land expropriated from Palestinians and segregated based on religious identity. These settlements are not just closed to Palestinians, they are closed to all Israelis unless they are Jewish. By doing business in this area, HP is investing in and supporting segregation.
Nowhere in the literature or on its included map does HP mention that as a settlement, Ariel is considered to be a violation of international law – or that Ariel is located deep within the West Bank, in Palestinian territory.
For me, this marketing literature raises an even more curious question: Is HP advocating a one-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Granted, the thought is absurd. No company in their right mind would allow themselves to be caught up in the divisive politics of the Middle East! If anyone were to make such an outrageous proposition in the US, they would be accused of undermining the survival of the Jewish State of Israel – the reason being that a one-state solution would mean absorbing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into the State of Israel, thereby diluting its Jewish identity. Yet in the right-wing settler politics of Israel, this extreme position is the mainstream, but not because they are anxious to include the Palestinians. Quite the opposite; the settlers advocate for a Jewish state that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. All Israel, no Palestine.
Why would HP support such a controversial position, even implicitly, through its marketing literature?
In addition to their sales to Ariel, HP, through its EDS (Electronic Data Systems) subsidiary, provides products used at the checkpoints that impede the movement of Palestinians living in the West Bank between work and home, schools and hospitals. Can anyone really argue that equipping these checkpoints is “advancing the welfare of humanity?”
And yet, HP continues to profit from the repression of the Palestinian population. It is extraordinary that a company once renowned for community responsibility, one that claims to devote itself to technical contributions that advance the welfare of humanity, has turned into a company that not only appears to advocate an exclusive one-state solution in Israel but uses its products to aid in the repression of Palestinians to make that one-state solution possible.
HP provides products used at the checkpoints that impede the movement of Palestinians living in the West Bank between work and home, schools and hospitals. Can anyone really argue that equipping these checkpoints is “advancing the welfare of humanity?”
As I stated at the beginning of this article, for the second year in a row, I have asked the senior vice president for business ethics if she could provide me with an example of how their Policy for Global Business Ethics has changed how they do business with a client. She has consistently been unable to provide me with an example. So once again, what is the difference between HP and those “Lords of War” who will sell anything to anyone for the right price? If this represents the updated “HP Way” for the 21st century, then, well, it could use some work.
When is an ethics policy no policy at all? Probably when you can’t give a single example of how it changes the way you do business.
AUTHOR BIO: Geoff is a Presbyterian campus minister with United Campus Christian Ministry and Progressive Christians @ Stanford University. He is also the Peacemaking Advocate for the Presbytery of San Jose and has been working on Israel/Palestine justice issues for more than 12 years.
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