Volkswagen is finally reaching out to its customers with a “goodwill package” for those who own cars equipped with the software designed to cheat emissions tests. The package, outlined in full-page newspaper ads, includes a $500 gift card, another $500 card that can be redeemed at Volkswagen dealerships, and three years’ worth of free roadside assistance. They still haven’t said how they’ll fix the emissions problem so they’re hoping this offer will buy time with customers stuck driving cars with significantly lower resale value that continue to violate emissions standards.
Many VW customers and dealers must be wondering why it took the company two months simply to apologize and ask for patience. Meanwhile, the news continues to get worse, involving many more vehicles in both the United States and Europe.
The latest revelations about problems in Europe came from a whistleblower – a company engineer who, according to news reports, alleged that employees manipulated tests for carbon dioxide emissions and fuel economy on diesel- and gasoline-fueled cars. The New York Times reported that internal investigations have been hampered by employees’ “ingrained fear of delivering bad news to superiors.”
In response, Volkswagen is offering an amnesty program for workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. (The offer does not include top management.) Of course, the company can’t protect employees from possible criminal charges, but they are promising that employees who come forward with information by the end of November will not be fired or face damage claims.
While this is unusual, it may be the only way Volkswagen can overcome a culture of secrecy and obtain the information it needs. We’ve seen this in other crisis situations, where employees knew of significant problems but did not come forward out of fear they would lose their jobs or face other repercussions. This meant top management was blind-sided by problems it might have been able to address.
Every senior executive should be concerned about a company culture that discourages employees at all levels from reporting problems. Frankly, the more layers of management a company has, the less likely it is that concerns will make their way to the top.
That’s why it’s so important for company leaders to regularly leave the executive suite and talk with hourly employees. That can take the form of periodic plant visits, town hall meetings, or random invitations for groups of employees to have coffee with the CEO. It’s also important to clearly articulate a process for employees to report concerns to risk management, compliance, human resources, or whatever department is appropriate within your organization. Anonymous reporting should always be an option, whether that’s by using old-fashioned suggestion boxes, a hotline or online channels.
Then, management must make a commitment to determine whether the concerns raised have any legitimacy. If employees don’t believe their concerns are taken seriously, they will stop voicing them.
You can’t fix a problem unless you’re aware of it. Now is a good time to remember Ben Franklin’s admonition, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”