Saying no to the boss

IT WILL be interesting to see how the VW emissions scandal plays out. I would love to know how this situation came to be. I could well imagine a jocular conversation in a bar, something along the lines of  “Hey! I know what we could do!”

A conversation borne of a heady mix of beer, exasperation with the perversity of the standards, and the unreasonable demands of management. Nothing so remarkable there. The really interesting question is this; how would a drinking jest turn into an engineered solution? Clearly, the joke that turned out to not be a joke must have been endorsed by a team, and sanctioned by management. It could not have been the work of a lone wolf. But apparently no one said “Whoa now! - You must be joking!”

I can only think that the standards and testing regime had become so divorced from the realities of actual performance – one hears stories of stripped-down and specially-finished cars being submitted for testing – that the ‘solution’ no longer appeared to represent an unacceptable crossing of a line. After all, the results were real, they were not being falsified, they represented the actual capability of the engines. It was just that the configuration did not match that deployed in normal use.

Now that the ‘chickens are coming home to roost’, the classical approach would be for management to absolve itself of blame and the engineers concerned to be identified as rogue elements. So far, VW appears to be acknowledging failures in corporate management, so perhaps we will not see the usual scapegoating of the engineers?

This territory represents perhaps one of the most severe tests of professionalism, the pressure from management: “I’m not interested in your excuses. This project has to be delivered by___. The company’s future/workforce security/your prospects are resting on this.” The pressure will be intensified if any delays or overruns lie within your area of responsibility, regardless of whether there was anything that you might prudently have done differently. In our own defence we should not allow unrealistic expectations and delivery programmes to remain unchallenged and insist on recognition of uncertainties in project delivery.

In the face of such pressures however, a degree of compromise might well be reasonable. But when should you refuse to take a shortcut or lower standards? There comes a point where the only honourable course would be to tender your resignation, or refuse cooperation and invoke disciplinary action, but where on the continuum of professional behaviours does this point lie? The simple test is that of hypothetical public scrutiny. If a full account appeared, how would a reasonable audience regard your behaviour, given that they were suitably informed of the context and had an appropriate degree of understanding? I must stress the hypothetical here; there is little prospect of such a balanced assessment, but we cannot allow the usual media distortions to be a factor in our evaluation (that is very hazardous terrain that, mercifully, our profession requires us to leave the politicians to negotiate).

It is only a sense of honour (and its converse – shame) that can sustain us through such trials of our professionalism. It seems that popular recognition of these values is in serious decline, as the talentless and shameless are increasingly celebrated for their very shamelessness. But we are not appearing on a structured reality TV show. We are not trying to keep up with the Kardashians. We are endeavouring to make things work in real reality. That brings with it certain professional responsibilities – these are truly worth celebrating and we should embrace them and hold them dear.

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