Ethics must be based on principles and integrity must be aligned with these principles. Hence something has failed at VolkswagenI have been always been impressed by Volkswagen’s ads for their “intelligent humor.” Unfortunately, the engineers of the German automotive group have not learned anything from their colleagues in marketing. I don’t know if they had an overdose of humor or not enough intelligence.

For those who thought roguish behavior came from the southern European countries, it is surely a laughable sight to see how VW “engineered” a way to bypass laws. Designing software that detects when the car is being inspected and reduces the emission of gases is a formidable act of ingenuity.

Unfortunately, as human beings we often use inventiveness for evil purposes. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we used our creativity to do good?

How can intelligent people, who are surely dedicated to their jobs and seek what is best for their company, act that way?

  • In some cases it is because they choose the most convenient path.
  • Sometimes, it is a well-intentioned goal of improving efficiency and cutting costs.
  • Other times, it is the pressure to achieve certain objectives.
  • And there is always some degree of autosuggestion to convince oneself that “we won’t get caught.” 

So, what happened? Because in the end—almost by chance—someone smells a rat, the problem blows up, the situation gets out of hand, and the negative consequences snowball: multimillion dollar fines, reputation crisis, possible criminal charges against executives, the stock price plummets 35% in two days.

And those involved will think: “If we’d known it would turn out like this, we never would have done it!”

Measuring an ethical attitude according to what might happen almost always leads to regretful actions. For this reason, ethics must be based on principles, not consequences.

An upright attitude starts with having clear principles of conduct. But that is not enough. In addition, integrity requires being aligned with these principles. It is crucial to create environments that foster ethical conduct  and can detect improper conduct before it is too late. If not, senior management will be responsible by omission.