The Volkswagen emissions scandal broke while I was in Worms, Germany, co-teaching a seminar on business ethics at the University of Applied Sciences. Interestingly enough, the case would not make a terribly interesting one to study from an ethical perspective. What the managers at Volkswagen did – rigging software so that cars provided false emission data when in a testing situation – was very clearly unethical, and illegal. The harm caused to the company and its reputation was substantial.
The Volkswagen story is an interesting one to study from a governance and management behavior perspective: what factors created the culture that allowed such blatant corruption to exist in a company that’s a leader in its field? What can other companies do to prevent having such a scandal themselves?
But as an ethics case study, it’s not so interesting because there’s no gray area or ethical arguments to make that what management did was acceptable. The interesting cases to study from an ethics perspective are the ones where honest people, people of integrity and good will, struggle to figure out how to balance competing obligations and responsibilities to different stakeholders.