Misguided Loyalties

James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to prison yesterday (for more than three years). And was fined $200,000. His offense: helping VW defraud the U.S. and violate the Clean Air Act by evading emissions requirements with diesel-powered vehicles by rigging software to cheat.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, said Mr. Liang is a “good and decent person.” He added, “[Mr. Liang] blindly executed a crime because of a misguided loyalty to his employer.”

I don’t doubt it. Not for a minute. I’ve seen it often.

I’ve even visited fellow employees in prison for their misdeeds (price fixing). And worked hard to keep others out. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Usually, transgressors don’t get caught.

The common denominator in most cases is what Mr. Nixon observed: misguided loyalty.

I’ve always been amazed by what people are willing to do from a sense of loyalty to their employers. Of course, it’s not always based in loyalty. Sometimes, it’s out of fear: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, fear of being ostracized.

Most of the people I’ve observed transgress in a serious way are what I’d call
“good and decent people.” They were just willing to do things for their employers that they’d probably not have been willing to do for themselves.

I’ve never made excuses for people who cross the line. Each of us makes decisions about how to live our lives. What risks to take. What injury to inflict on others. If you make bad decisions, don’t expect others to make excuses for you.

Mr. Liang decided to conspire with others to help his employer in deceitful ways that hurt others. And the environment. It was a choice. He was one of the unlucky ones. He got caught.

To whom and what do you owe your loyalty, Vera? These are questions you’ll face in life.

Take these questions seriously. They’re not unimportant. Indeed, our answers define us. They may even affect where and how we spend our future (e.g., in prison and in shame).

I’ve had the privilege of working with some people who owed their loyalty to virtue, honesty and respect for others instead of a man-made creation we call a corporation or instead of money. One that comes to mind is a former colleague who now lives in Alabama. He took such questions seriously. He is a “good and decent person.”

But he’s so much more than that.

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