September 24, 2015 | Kelly

The VW employer brand – what should they do right now?

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How are 600,000 VW employees feeling? Compared to the massive coverage re costs, legal, senior leaders, recalls and impact on customer trust, respect and health, the workforce impact has not got the comment it deserves.

Yet from an employee standpoint, it is a truly awful story because it is worse than an accident. Putting this software into 11 million diesel cars was a deliberate act and it must have involved hundreds maybe thousands of VW people. What was the brief to the designers and those who implemented it? Did the brief go public on what the purpose was or was it dressed up under fuel efficiency, safety, or improved measurement? Either way did anybody ask questions about it at any management level?

There can be no question in my mind that the bosses and the CEO knew this was happening. In such a brilliant and ordered German organisation the idea of some department head doing it solus is unbelievable. Indeed, I’d go the other way – something like this would have been assessed in terms of potential risk. If the purpose was to mislead bothersome environmental bureaucrats, what were the chances that this ruse would be rumbled and if so what might the impact be?

So what to do now? This remains a great business and I am not remotely concerned that the VW at home is any kind of risk. Bad practice can be commercially mortal but this matter, however apparently disgraceful it is, will not be. VW will get through it but at great cost financially and for many senior people there.

Here are my thoughts on action from an employer brand standpoint in the next few days – perhaps, as I write, some of this may be announced – indeed I hope it will:

  1. VW request for an external independent body needs to investigate all the above and go public on their desire to do that right now.
  2. Ok the CEO has gone but resist the gigantic pay off.
  3. Offer an opportunity throughout the organisation for individuals to express in confidence their views, concerns and any private knowledge which in hindsight they would like to have shared.
  4. Communicate face to face with this vast work force via town hall meetings after each shift and in each location, prompt comment, Q & A, prepare colleagues for a change in attitudes and behaviour including a whistleblowing process which welcomes and protects the individual. This is a truth and reconciliation process and it needs doing fast before the external investigation gets going. This is a massive psychological blow and needs internal discussion NOW. Written and broadcast communication will not achieve this.
  5. At these reassert the values, history and achievements of VW over the years, demonstrate the immense strengths of the business yet accept that no great organisation can think it is above regulation.
  6. Do the same with the dealer network and the supply chain. Was the software in question designed externally and bought in? Has it been available for other car manufacturers?

Any lawyer looking at the above will think that this is a massive risk in that evidence of wrongdoing will come out and will prompt claims and government fines. So be it, that is the price of transparency and recovery for VW’s stunned work force. The truth will come out anyway.

Simon Barrow