The Volkswagon scandal will be a hot topic for many years to come and eventually be the subject of books, business magazine articles, TED Talks, and TV documentaries. Today, there are endless questions with only a few answers. What happened? Who was responsible? For how long did this really go on? Stay tuned, the story will unfold and it will not be pretty.
The scandal will cost VW billions in fines, judgments, revenues, and legal fees. Add to that the loss of trust from their current and potential customer base, shareholders, vendors, loss to dealers, and to thousands of VW employees worldwide. This has already and will hurt a lot of people.
Even VW’s competitors will most likely suffer more regulatory burdens and customer scrutiny as a result. Sure, Toyota, Ford, and GM may sell a few more vehicles as a result of VW’s fall from grace, but do you really want to see your competitor flame out like that? Short term thinking: Yes. Long term thinking: No. It’s unsettling and puts a strain on the industry.
C-Level executives, board members, and shareholders of companies all over are asking themselves one question, “Could this happen to us?” The answer is yes, it could.
What happened? For a moment, let’s take the focus off the people at Volkswagon who cooked up this scheme. I’m sure they will be identified quickly and dealt with accordingly by VW and/or whatever authorities have jurisdiction in these matters.
My guess is there are some ethical “bright spots” out there, individuals who knew something was wrong and blew a whistle, reporting their concerns to colleagues or superiors. What happened to those folks? Are they still with the company? Did they get rewarded or punished for “doing the right thing”? We’ll see if there were any “heroes”.
But, what about those individuals who were on the sidelines, perhaps not decision-makers, who were aware of what was going on and remained silent? How many (missed) opportunities were there for someone to point out that what was being discussed, proposed, and eventually implemented was just plain wrong? Are there dozens of people in this category? Hundreds? Could there be more?
If you have ever worked in any organization, you have probably experienced or witnessed groupthink, compliance, going along, being a team player and not rocking the boat. Maybe you are experiencing this right now? If so, I wonder if your CEO, shareholders, or board of directors would want to know? What would they think if they knew? What would they do?
But in the end, it really comes down to what do YOU think? What would YOU do? Companies don’t have ethics or integrity, people do. There may be a cost or risk to blowing the whistle, but my guess is those who knew what was going on at VW and remained silent are going to wind up paying a huge cost nevertheless.