“It was not until the EPA and the California Air Resources Board threatened to withhold certification for its 2016 diesel models that Volkswagen in early September admitted its wrongdoing.” Reuters, September 22, 2015
Let’s Talk About “Business!”
Perhaps I’m hopelessly naïve in thinking that virtually all of us are do gooders who always “do” the best we can. I think I’m right about this but…
But it gets even worse. Because I’m the guy who suggests you never pay attention to the news, yet I’m distracted by this recent corporate crisis facing Volkswagen. Why am I engaging in such hypocrisy? It’s because I’m blown away by the ongoing developments alleging that an unknown group of VW employees deployed an in-car technology scam in order to pass EPA emissions tests for a humungous fleet of its diesel automobiles. As you know by now, this fabrication means that nearly 500,000 Volkswagen and Audi diesel models sold in the States during the last several years — and 11 milllllllion worldwide — are emitting as much as 40X the pollutants allowed under EPA restrictions. Just in the U.S., Volkswagen could face reparation costs as high as $18 billion.
Let’s repeat that figure: up to 40X. We’re not talking about exceeding legally mandated standards by 10, 20, or even 40 percent. We are talking about a range of 10X to 40X. That blows my mind.
On the other hand I don’t know why this specific story is bothering me so much. Nobody is going to die as a result of this heinous act. Much more selfishly, I don’t own a Volkswagen, nor do I know anyone who does. While I see a lot more Audis on the road here in the San Francisco suburbs than I used to several years ago, I only know one guy who owns one.
Therefore, why am I taking this development so personally? It’s called E-T-H-I-C-S. If you’re not a religious type, they actually teach this stuff at each level of our education system, including master’s programs. (Go BU!) Yeah, I’m the guy who never shoplifted in grade school. Not ever. Not even for a candy bar or small bag of Fritos. It just never felt right to me. Although I didn’t think about The Golden Rule explicitly back in the day, the small “variety store” in Central Massachusetts a few blocks from where I grew up was a family business. Why would I want to steal from them? Then again, what if I had? It’s not such a big deal, right? I mean, it’s just one kid and one bag of freakin’ Fritos, right? But what if every other kid who walked in did that? Now let’s take a much bigger purview.
When companies like VW make poor ethical decisions by intentionally skirting government regulations, they violate our trust in a significant way, This behavior, figuratively speaking, steals from us. It corrodes us. And it unnecessarily increases the natural tension levels between government and big business. The result is higher costs for a broad swath of businesses and consumers, and a more toxic and cynical society. And it doesn’t need to be this way.
Let’s Talk About People!
Let me propose a slight revision to wording I used in the preceding paragraph. There is no such thing as “companies like VW.” Every article I’ve seen on this topic features a giant and ominous steely blue VW logo as their top visual banner. But to paraphrase the famous line in Soylent Green, Volkswagen “is made out of people.” We’re all just grown up kid people who can either steal the bag of Fritos and perhaps get away with it, or we can do the right thing.
So out of nearly 600,000 employees worldwide, where were the whistle blowing people at Volkswagen doing the right thing? If VW is like most companies on the planet, its professional employees are required to take online courses every year or two that reinforce a legal and ethical (that word again) code of conduct. While Volkswagen’s CEO
will likely be shown the door has now resigned, what kind of corporate culture transcends VW’s leadership where this could have gone so far?
Sure, one can and should point a finger at GM with its faulty ignition cover up, where people have actually died, and say, “Come on, look at GM for @#$% sake!!” That’s correct, absolutely look at GM. They’re poised to pay legal costs nearing $1.5 billion. And many innocent lives were lost through criminal negligence, which is truly unthinkable.
Speaking of questionable ethics, do you want to talk about Monsanto? That’s fair, but maybe another time…Going back to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear as this story unfolds their total costs may rise higher than anyone is anticipating. And VW’s reputation in the U.S., where since the post-original Beetle years they’ve never enjoyed significant market share, is tarnished as long as this news story stays alive, which will be for quite awhile.
Let’s Talk About…Happy Endings! Yeah!!
First of all, knock it off right now! This is a family show after all.
The reason I care so much about this, and you should too, is that having a positive mindset — which is what I write about most of the time — absolutely includes doing good and doing right in the world. It’s much more than thinking positively and mindfully. It’s about always taking positive actions. Because when people and companies stray off that “do good” path, they inevitably get burned in an unhappy ending, and who wants that?
How will this story evolve for Volkswagen? Even though they will expend many billions of dollars, getting burned will not mean an ending where they go out of business. That’s because if necessary there is no question the German government will be there to ensure this does not happen.
But if they had just “done good” in the first place, their financial footing would be so much more solid. They would have made so much more money than they now will. They would have a much more positive corporate reputation and enduring global brand than they now will. Ahhh…it would have been so much HAPPIER.
In my world view, good always wins over “evil.” It may take a long time, but as long as we thrive and grow as a society this will always be the case.
You and I cannot control Volkswagen, but we sure as hell can control ourselves.
“And they all lived happily ever after.”
P.S. And yes, I know that “doing good” is grammatically incorrect. Mea culpa.