As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Volkswagen – the biggest car manufacturer in the world – was recently implicated in what’s potentially one of the largest corporate scandals of all time. Technology was used to create artificial emission readings for their diesel cars, which then appeared cleaner and more economical than they actually were.
This dishonesty has broken public trust and has caused the giant corporation immense reputational damage. It’s still unclear which people in the company are directly accountable, who else knew and how many were involved. What is clear is that no matter how powerful or successful you are – unethical practices result in failure, and rightly so.
A wise man once said: ‘Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.’ Albert Einstein echoed this sentiment in saying: ‘Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.’
We all recognise the value of this. Growing up involves proving ourselves reliable and trustworthy through a series of greater responsibilities and commitments. This is just as true for individuals as it is for corporations. Trust is fundamental to sustainably successful business dealings.
The reality of breaching integrity is that it comes with a cost that could well be catastrophic. And the cold reality is that it’s never worth it: one lie leads to the next.
The lesson to learn from Volkswagen is simple. Whatever it is that you do, whatever position or role that you have, and whoever else is involved – do the right thing. Wrong is not relative; as John Gapper wrote in the Financial Times about the Volkswagen affair: the most dangerous phrase in business is ‘everyone does it’. Have the courage to remain ethical, be honest and work with integrity, whether or not anyone is watching.
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to set an example in our workplaces. Be transparent, hold each other accountable, and put systems in place to reward honesty and the anonymous reporting of suspicious activity. Gaining the respect and trust of your employees and clients will make every difficult but ethical decision completely worthwhile.
Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Health