If there has been a subliminal theme running through the auto industry of late, it may be this: Personal greed appears to be on the rise, while personal ethics have taken it on the chin.
What's especially problematic is that these illicit actions have occurred largely during an extended period of economic growth — a period which soon may be coming to an end.
Few corners of this large industry remain untouched by recent scandals: dealers selling out of trust, a widening UAW scandal, suppliers fixing prices and automakers caught cheating on emissions standards or paying massive fines because they dragged their feet on recalls.
All of these examples have more in common than just the admitted guilt of the accused. They point to a difficulty within large segments of the industry to cope with change without cheating — to accept and understand that failure is a naturally occurring outcome, just like success.
Why do people make bad choices? Greed certainly can be a prime motivator, even a driving force for some. But historically, the auto industry has had a low tolerance for failure. Perhaps that has been for good reason in some areas, given high development costs and the uncompromising need for safety. On the other hand, failure can be a valuable teacher, and a managerial intolerance of failure is a prime motivator for some employees to make unethical choices to keep their jobs.
If employees are told that "failure is not an option" on a project, as was expressed to Volkswagen engineers in their early work on the automaker's problematic diesel engines, and success remains unattainable, the motivation to cheat grows exponentially.
There are no valid excuses for unethical behavior in any corner of the automotive industry, despite the multitude of creative rationalizations. As Albert Einstein once noted, "Relativity applies to physics, not ethics."
Industry leaders would be wise to remember that — especially as sales, profits and other metrics get squeezed in a downturn.