General Motors and Me

In 1988, my wife and I purchased our first really nice family car – an Oldsmobile Delta 88 Brougham, produced by General Motors. It was a four-door sedan for our growing family of five, was a very attractive blue color, and had about all of the amenities that were available back at that time.

It also stalled out. A lot. Sometimes in the middle of an intersection while waiting to make a turn. Sometimes on the highway, in which case I had to steer hard to get it to the shoulder before it rolled to a stop. In all these cases, the engine cut off and the power steering died. If there had been airbags in the cars back in those days, I’m sure they also would have been deactivated.

After a couple of tries, I was always able to restart the car, but the stalling persisted at frequent enough intervals that I became afraid to drive the thing.

Many trips to the dealer and other mechanics, and no luck. Oldsmobile said they could not replicate the condition and it was not under warranty, as they tried several hundred dollars worth of cleaning and repairs (which I had to pay for) that they thought, maybe, perhaps could help. All to no avail.

Then one day I received a recall letter from Oldsmobile. It seems I was not alone. They said they had identified an “intermittent stalling problem” with my model car, and that I should bring it to the dealership, where it would be repaired at no charge. And it was.

As for the money iI had spent looking for a solution — sorry. None of it was covered, as none of those repairs were the exact repair that they finally figured out would work. There was no internet back then, so it was just Oldsmobile against me — and you can figure out who won that battle.

Fast forward to the current controversy over the GM Chevy Cobalt — and the well documented reports of the car losing power while driving, because the ignition switch would move from the “on” to the “accessory” position — a close reminder of my stalling problems of 25 years ago.

As The New York Times has been reporting, GM knew as far back as May 2009 that there was a serious problem. But for the next five years, while this defect caused crashes in which people died, they publicly denied it. In fact, they threatened at least one surviving family with a lawsuit if they did not drop their wrongful death case.

How can this happen? How could individual GM employees – engineers, lawyers, product managers, executives – who knew about the problem fail to go public? To stand up (privately, and if necessary publicly) to management?

New York Times writer Floyd Norris, in an excellent article published on March 28th, offers some possible reasons as to why GM employees failed to act — among other reasons, he speculates that maybe it was not a cut and dry situation, maybe the failure of some of the victims to use a seat belt clouded the issue, maybe people feared for their jobs in a financially stressed corporation, maybe people felt it was somebody else’s job to take the matter up the line. Norris certainly does not excuse it — he labels it “appalling” – and I agree with him.

Having worked for thirty years in the chemical industry, I know a thing or two about situations that aren’t quite black and white. I also know a thing or two about how hard is to tell management that there is a problem. I know how much a corporation’s profits affected my own compensation.

But at the company I worked for, FMC Corporation, we were fanatical about safety. It was part of a shared culture, and that culture was established deep within the organization, and welled up through all levels of management. It was not a top-down core belief, it was an inside-out belief.

I have been privileged during the last twelve years to teach business courses at Ursinus College. Trying my best to focus on what matters most, I always include a section on ethics and corporate responsibility. I tell the students that someday one or more of them may need to stand up and be counted. It will be hard. They may be intimidated – by management and by their peers. But each employee needs to do what he or she believes is in the best interests of society.

Several years ago GM laid the Oldsmobile brand to rest. By their actions – or inaction, as the case may be – they may be doing the same to the rest of the company.