Analysis of Ethical Failures

Ethics is a core principle in business management and determines whether or not a business has integrity. Many times, businesses are at crossroads between making profits and doing the right thing. Unfortunately, most of these businesses opt to make huge profits at the expense of the customers good. Such was the case with General Motors and Volkswagen, two of the largest vehicle manufacturers in the United States. The first incident involved the ignition scandal at General Motors while the second one was an emission scandal at Volkswagen. Both of these situations are regarded as cases of ethical failure due to the reaction of the companies to the crisis that was present at the time.

In 2014, General Motors began recalling vehicles after suspecting an ignition fault that had caused dozens of deaths of motorists (Green & Plungis, p. 2). The largest crisis in the scandal is the fact that General Motors had realized the existence of the fault more than one time from 2001 up until 2014 when the company bowed to public pressure and recalled the vehicles. The unwillingness to recall the vehicles before or to change the faulty ignitions is reason for the company being labeled unethical. The case of General Motors was similar to that of Volkswagen which installed a defeat device software in more than 11 million cars (Anescu et al., p. 3). The purpose of the software was to cover up diesel emissions during the testing of the vehicles. Essentially, the car manufacturers aimed to make cars that detected when they were undergoing emissions. The software could run the engine cleanly during the testing phase and then switch off control of emissions during normal driving conditions.

Before the recall of the faulty ignition switches by General Motors that happened in 2014, the ethical statement of the company integrated the values of safety, responsibility, respect, quality and accountability. In fact, the rebranding and renaming of the company to New GM was seen as a statement of the company’s alignment to high ethical measures (Higgins et al., p. 4). The company had numerous opportunities from 2001 to disclose the defects and alter the manufacturing of new vehicles. As early as 2001, there were many complaints and lawsuits from unsatisfied customers, most of which were settled out of court. However, if the company was really concerned about the safety of its customers, the increasing complaints and lawsuits should have been an alarm and a pointer that all was not well in the company’s manufacturing. In addition, the numerous tests that the company conducted between 2001 and 2014 had revealed that the ignition switches were faulty and needed attention. The company should have been ethical and changed the ignition switches as well as recalling the faulty vehicles.

The situation at Volkswagen points to a concealed effort to hide a defect in the company’s vehicle. The choice of a software device was in itself a calculated move due to the fact that software is much more difficult to discover than using hardware. In so doing, Volkswagen was sure of its intentions to cheat during the assessment of the amount of pollution caused by the vehicles. The engineers in the company were unethical in their job because they colluded with the company in fooling the state and not caring about the people using the vehicles (Palocz-Andresen, p. 23). However, it cannot be assumed that the decision to use the software to conceal the carbon print of the vehicles was one made by the engineers but was part of the larger decision making organ of the company. This is to say that even the top management of the company was sure of the foregoing but chose to keep quiet.

Another ethical failure is the fact that both companies were in a rush to cut costs in acting unethically. General Motors assumed the problem of the faulty ignition switches in avoidance of the huge cost of recalling all the previously sold vehicles (Ivory, p. 29). Volkswagen acted in secrecy in a bid to lowering the amount of money payable to the regulatory authority for the high volume of pollutants from its vehicles. The insincerity with the two organizations is evidence of the fact companies are much more concerned with profits than with the safety of the customers. The result was the creation of unethical practices among the employees thus putting the risk of other citizens at risk. The employees, under guidance from the top management, decided to act unethically since they abhorred the cost of controlling instances while still experiencing huge international competition.

One of the leading pointers to a company’s ethics is the character of the leaders who make the most influential decisions. It seems that the leaders at Volkswagen and General Motors are either too lazy, or they do not even care about the students in schools. Despite the high education and competence among the leaders, the character in the leadership of the two companies led them into making decisions that were unethical and detrimental for both the company and individual reputations.  The leadership at Volkswagen for example were too focused on saving costs and thus increasing the company’s profit at the expense of other citizens and the government. In addition, the General Motors leadership had the same notion of saving costs by not recalling the faulty ignition switches. This decision compromised the safety of the people that had already bought the vehicles and who faced a threat of death through accidents.

Conversation between senior executive and his child

Son: (flapping the newspaper pages) everyone is talking about you, dad.

Father: because I am that famous?

Son: yes but you are not popular.

Father: where is this conversation leading to?

Son: I am sorry dad, but I am ashamed of you for doing that which you have not taught us.

Father: I understand you, son, but that is just lies.

Son: It cannot be lies when everyone else knows about it.

Father: (as he pulls a chair for himself) my son, lies travel faster than truth. That does not make lies to be right.

Son: (getting a bit angry) what would you call a company that killed more than one hundred people as its leadership watched?

Father: That sounds like genocide. But it is not what we have done.

Son: (whimping) it cannot be! I hate you for doing what you did

Father: I understand the hatred. How about an explanation?

Son: There is no need for explaining when it is all too clear

Father: (standing up) when I was your age, all I wanted in my life was to get a job with one of the leading companies in the United States. I did get the job but it was not as I expected.

Son: (interrupting) and…

Father: Over the next few years, I embarked on climbing up the ladder of success.

Son: Yes, but at whose expense?

Father: (ignoring the question) in less than five years, I had held more than two senior positions in the company and was a very important member of the team.

Son: (looking away)

Father: The reason why I climbed up[ the ladder was because the management thought I was the best to drive the company forward. Twenty years later, I am faced with the biggest challenge in my life of career. At a time when our company had a shortage of funds, I am given the option of either saving the company or killing it altogether.

Son: what do you mean options?

Father: Well, if I had recalled all the vehicles at that time, the company would have gotten into debts that it could not even sustain. I only had two options and I chose the right one.

Son: (wiping tears) but then you presented yourself another chance; that of killing people in their hundreds. How morbid.

Father: I did not kill people intentionally. It is called collateral damage. Of course I do regret the fact that hundreds of people died during the scandal. However, I’d still do it again because it helped save our company at that time.

Son: You are too hard to understand.

Father: yes, I am too hard to understand, but only because you do not wish to understand me.

Son: I have tried to understand you but every time I ask you about it, you provide philosophical responses. IO cannot even make friends with people in school anymore. Everyone is getting rid of me. And you know why? It is because of you, dad (lets out a loud cry).

Father: (moving closer to hug him) I am sorry if this hurt you son. However, you have to know that I made the right decision based on the prevailing circumstances then.

Son: You are bound to say that because you are being defensive. It is understandable of your reaction. Why did you do it knowing very well that hundreds of people would be killed?

Father: I never imagined that such a large number of people would be killed in the small challenge. My job description entailed the responsibility of maintaining profits for the company and the ability of the company to remain afloat despite the challenges. I did what was within my responsibility. In fact, at not single point did I imagine that my actions would be the cause of the death of about one hundred people.

Son: (holding his chin) It is really sad.

Father: Soon enough, you will be in management positions influencing decisions.

Son: I look forward to that so I can correct all the anomalies that exist among today’s managers. It baffles me that a human being would put the life of a fellow human being while cashing profits for a company started by these same human beings.

Father: You would not understand even if I were to explain this to you over the course of the week, would you.

Son: I probably would not, because there is nothing worth understanding in all this drama.

Father: You will understand because you are my son, and I will always be your father.

Son: That is not in doubt but you have to stop the unethical practices in your company.

Father: My son, listen to me and listen well. Every business is in operation to exploit the customers. No one company, save for the nongovernmental organizations and the government, can claim to succeed without having the input of other factors including exploitation as you call it.

Son: The problem is that the mass killing orchestrated by your company is a curse to we, your family. It might turn out that these people will curse your name because you killed their sons and daughters. In their admonition, they will include even your family thereby invoking curse upon the entire family. That is not something that I will sit down well with.

Father: It matters not if you cannot understand simple logic (hands in the pocket)

Son: (slamming of the door) I am not impressed.

(Both walk away)


Works cited

Anescu, Cristian, and Aan Clenci. Proceedings of the European Automotive Congress Eaec-Esfa 2015. , 2016. Internet resource.

Green, J., & Plungis, J. GM Staff, Media Flagged Ignition Fault Long Before Recall. 2014. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from Bloomberg Business:

Higgins, T., Green, J., & Plungis, J. Barra Says 15 People Removed After Recall Investigation. 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2015, from Bloomber Business:

Ivory, D. GM’s ignition problems: Who knew what when. 2014. Retrieved January 20, 2015, from The New York Times:

Palocz-Andresen, Michael. Decreasing Fuel Consumption and Exhaust Gas Emissions in Transportation: Sensing, Control and Reduction of Emissions. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2013. Internet resource.


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