Although Volkswagen blames its recent emissions scandal on a handful of “rogue engineers,” authorities are still investigating the matter, and some people feel it’s unlikely that only a couple of employees were involved. “It goes way, way higher than that,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) said during a Congressional hearing in early October.
Let’s hypothesize for a moment and ask: What would have happened if the engineers had declined to write the code that allowed Volkswagen’s diesel-powered vehicles to cheat emissions tests? They probably would have lost their jobs.
Is the VW case an isolated event, or is unethical corporate behavior more systemic? That’s hard to quantify. “We’d hope it was isolated,” said Janice Smith, a representative for EthAssist, a group dedicated to clinical and research ethics. “But [it] shows a need for teaching business ethics and open-door reporting of unethical behavior either way.”
On an employee level, most ethical issues don’t come with epic repercussions. “Most of us don’t face a billion-dollar fraud or an issue where someone’s going to die tomorrow,” said James Detert, a professor at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Nonetheless, most people will find themselves facing an ethical conundrum at some point in their career. “Although I don’t recall any egregious unethical requests coming my way,” said Victor Olex, founder and CEO of SlashDB, which builds an automated Web API for databases, “there were times where I would come to know about wrongdoing by somebody else. [I’m] then confronted with a dilemma what to do about the situation.”
So how should developers and tech pros act when confronted with an ethical crisis, especially one that goes public?
“First and foremost, own up to your mistakes,” Olex said. “Secondly, be good at what you are hired to do. You will gain credibility to win any confrontations where hearsay comes into play, and in case you find yourself wasting too much energy navigating office politics, you can simply move on.”
For those looking for more detailed guidance, some organizations have attempted to develop ethical frameworks for engineers to follow. In August, ResearchGate, the professional network for scientists and researchers, published Professional Ethics of Software Engineers: An Ethical Framework. In it, the authors stated the wish to “overcome the traditional dichotomy between professional skills and ethical skills, which plagues the engineering professions.”
As software grows more ubiquitous, the need for ethics on the part of developers (and corporations) becomes more important. But ethics depends on people speaking up. “I was asked to install software to track employees comings and goings on the Internet,” said William Parker, an IT engineer based in New York. “I said I was uncomfortable spying on fellow employees. My supervisor explained that the equipment was the company’s and people are there to do their jobs. I wasn’t the only one in IT to complain and eventually a policy was developed where people would be told that the software was being installed.”