Dobrowolski: Cheating never makes any sense

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PITTSFIELD >> Maybe they do it for the thrill, or the risk, or because it's easy and they think that they can get away with it. Maybe the reason is sheer hubris like arrogance or entitlement. Or, maybe they simply have no scruples.

Whatever the reason, it always amazes me when companies cheat. The risks are so great, not just for the bottom line but for their reputation, that it makes no sense for companies to take them. Yet, they do it anyway.

Take Volkswagen for example. Not only did the German automaker get caught cheating once on auto emissions tests, it got caught twice. Twice. How dysfunctional is that? How is it even possible?

Then there's Takata, the Japanese air bag manufacturer. U.S. auto safety regulators fined the firm $70 million last week for bungling the recall of the airbags the company made that spewed shrapnel when they exploded. As part of the deal, Takata had to admit that it was aware of the problem, but took too long to do something about it.

Takata's actions were despicable, but Volkswagen's are more puzzling to me. The only explanation that I can come up with for VW getting caught cheating again is that the second incident was uncovered when regulators began examining the company more closely after the first incident had been reported. In other words, the cheating may be more systemic and widespread than everyone thought. If that is truly the case, it wouldn't surprise me if more incidents may be revealed. The CEO might not be the only VW executive to lose his job.

What strikes me the most about Volkswagen's situation isn't so much that the company cheated, but that the automaker really didn't have to. It wasn't hemorrhaging money, or teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. So why bother?

VW installed software that was designed to defeat emission tests, meaning the vehicles gave off less pollution when they were tested than they did when driven on the road. In a piece I saw on one news network, someone demonstrated how it worked. You turn a switch on the car one way to lower the emissions for testing, and then turn it back to another level for driving.

Now ask yourself, if a company is competent enough to install software that sophisticated, why would they do it in order to cheat? If the programming is that technical, why didn't VW use it to make the emissions even lower than the standard that they were being tested against?

I know emissions standards are getting tougher and more strict, and it's probably getting harder and more expensive for automakers to meet them. But why stake your company's whole reputation on something that could easily backfire if you get caught?

VW had great brand recognition. It used the term "German engineering" a lot in its ads, a phrase that implied their vehicles were more precise than anybody elses. What do you think of now when you hear the term "German engineering"? Cheating. Dishonesty. Cutting corners. Ouch.

The sad part about cheating is that it tends to be endemic. It happens not only in business, but just about everywhere else.

Last week I did a google search for "Why do businesses cheat?", which I later refined to "why do people cheat?"

One article I found stated that cheaters often receive a "self-described high" when they do something that they know is wrong. Another described ways that businesses move money around to fake financial results.

As you might expect, cheating is linked to just about every field imaginable. Wikipedia even had an entry about cheating on video games.

For the intellectual, I found articles on cheating in both The New York Times and the Huffington Post. The Times article dated back to 2007, but it contained some interesting observations on the "psychology of cheating."

According to the article, cheating is often thought of as something that is done with "cold calculation." But new research has found that people are prone to cheat even when it's not in their best interest. That instead of carefully weighing the "costs and benefits" of breaking the rules, people can be "heavily influenced" by peer pressure, their moods, even their self-esteem. Some people even cheat "out of a sense of fairness."

Cheating out of a sense of fairness. Wow. I would bet that style of cheating is more prevalent today because of the way our society is structured. Some people think they have a legitimate right to cheat because they believe the system is completely stacked against them. It may seem that way sometimes under our current economic conditions, but in reality it's not.

In tough times, ethical people use character to get them through. Cheaters have no idea what character means or even stands for. To them, character is probably considered a weakness. How sad.

Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com.


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