Siemens and the Ethics of Crime

Last Updated Apr 2, 2008 11:38 AM EDT

Crime is, by it's very nature, almost wholly unethical. But doesn't crime have its own ethics? Or is there really no honor among thieves?

I'm perplexed by the Siemens AG saga that is playing out over in Germany, where the engineering group allegedly payed millions to bribe consultants to win business contracts. OK. We've heard this one before. But here's where it gets sexy and ludicrous: Siemens then allegedly followed up on their crooked business plan with even more hush money because some of the consultants were reportedly threatening to go public.

Why does the ethicist in me get enraged by the actions of these consultants, much more so than at the actions of Siemens? Now I have no sympathy for Siemens. If these allegations are correct, then Siemens deserves all the punishments that are coming its way (including a possible SEC ban on bidding on U.S. contracts). But once they started this slippery slope, weren't they obligated to continue with the hush payments? At that crazy point, wasn't that the right thing to do? Isn't that the ethics of crime?

What gets me is the consultants threatening to go public. When they took the bribe money, weren't they signing on to a "it goes without saying" deal that they would also keep their mouths shut? Or are they obligated to milk this deal for all it's worth? Then again, do they have any leverage to demand hush money? Wouldn't opening their mouths just land them in big trouble?

Tell me if you're feeling what I'm feeling. I've asked a lot of questions here, and I'd like to hear some answers from the readers. Is there an ethics to crime? Or are the gloves off once you step over the line? Share your opinion in the comments section.
Have a workplace-ethics dilemma you'd like to see here? Email wherestheline (at) gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.