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Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked? October 9, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in ethics, Friday Philosophy.
Tags: , ,

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}



1. Neil Chandler - October 9, 2015

I would like to point out that, as you are in the UK there is no statue of limitations. No crimes “expire” in the UK. They generally become unable to be tried due to massive time lag, and must be tried and sentenced according to the law at that time, but they never expire…

mwidlake - October 9, 2015

Ohhhhh, I don’t like you anymore. I’ll be worried all evening now.

2. jgarry - October 9, 2015

I’ve also seen some engineers have an “it’s all a game” attitude when having to deal with some arbitrary regulations. This is especially true if they’ve come out of race car development, where it is a mark of pride (and gets results) to figure out loopholes in the rules. Here I’m guessing the loophole might have been thinking a “device” had to be hardware. It is even conceivable (to me, anyways), they did not think it was wrong at all – simply a cool feature to be able to tell when there is a stable situation, unlike the necessarily limited mapping of control data to the dynamic real world. Hey, we’re doing AI! As it moved up the chain of command, then it could hit the manager who should have said “whoa!” but perhaps thought that’s Legal’s prerogative, and again, German engineers can have some arrogant attitude. Since they’ve fired people already, I expect it will eventually come out that someone indeed decided to flout the rules, since they couldn’t really make it work in the real world.

VW has played these games before. I’ve gone through several iterations with my 2001 gas powered bug and emissions testing where they’ve had bogus catalytic converters. CARB (California Air Resources Board) made them extend the warranty to 10 years and 120K miles, and of course mine failed at 11 years and 80K miles. So I had options of cheap or expensive fixes, took the cheap fix, then this year they changed the rules again. So I go for the test this year (it’s a specialized computer that sends the results electronically to the gummint), and the fellow tells me the particular part is listed as defective, so I don’t need the test. #wtf

The US government also had a gaming-the-wait-lists scandal.

3. amitzil - October 9, 2015

Martin, that’s a very good point here, and it’s far from being black and white, there is a lot of grey in the middle.
What about not lying but working as a DBA in a gambling companies? Porn companies? Hackers maybe?
In the past, I worked for a company and left. When they looked for a replacement, my boss got quite a few resumes, and one guy looked really good, but his last position was for a gambling company. My boss didn’t like it that much. I don’t know if they hired him or not eventually, but my boss was willing to let him go just for that.
Moral is very different for different people, you can think that “just” changing the waiting time graph is not that bad, or “just” changing the numbers in the emission of cars is not that bad, or work for porn companies is not that bad, or you can think it is.
And think about much more serious stuff as well, like cover up things in companies that handle the people money (like banks and insurance) or cover up stuff that can even kill people.
I guess each person has it’s red line somewhere in this grey area, and when your job is at risk, it’s never easy.

mwidlake - October 9, 2015

It’s interesting what you say about people’s moral position being challenged due to the company they work for – but you have a choice about that. I actually chose to work for the NHS as I believed (and still do) in the ethos of it. However, at times it was hard to keep working in the NHS as you see so much wrong with it – rubbish people in positions of authority, the games politicians play, having to modify the underlying data on the system directly to allow people who have been in mental health wards for 50 years be discharged into a totally inadequate and unsupportive “{don’t} care in the community” mess and then see the number of people living on the streets in the city centre rocket up…

It’s even more interesting what you say about people who have moral issues hiring people who have worked in organisations they disagree with. I’m sure many people would say they would never condon that – but we all have our limits. I would personally be dubious of anyone who has worked in the cigarette industry but have no issues with the gambling! I’ve worked for a couple of gambling companies and though I am no fan of gambling, they are honest about what they do. A lot of finance is just gambling (contracts for difference, playing the markets, hedge funds) but they don’t like you saying so and can get quite upset if you say they are just the same as Ladbrokes (a well-known UK betting company). I know who I regards as the more honest…

4. amitzil - October 9, 2015

By the way, it’s often like this. When I worked for a bank I didn’t want to be their customers (knowing the way they handle stuff and their systems), the same with insurance companies and credit card companies. It’s usually not a morality issue, though.
Anyway, it’s a very interesting discussion.

5. Jeffrey Kemp - October 12, 2015

We reap what we sow. Stand for what you believe to be right, even if it leads to personal loss. “Thoughts lead to Actions; Actions lead to Habits; Habits become your Character; and Character determines your Destiny.”

6. Noons - October 12, 2015

I’m willing to bet if a thorough and honest investigation was made, here would be a LOT more car makers doing this sort of thing.
But let us all rejoice: a scapegoat was found and it was from a country that lost the war!
(and the ridiculous show goes on…)

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