Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why VW should start from the inside out

As if it couldn’t get any worse. Today it’s the reputation of the whole car industry with different manufacturers now potentially implicated in the emissions scandal. Previously we’ve seen commentators sounding the death knell for the diesel engine. And some have gone as far as to use the deception as a proxy for all that’s wrong with capitalism and why (with the help of Mr Corbyn) it’s time for real change.

I’m afraid my take is a little more mundane. We’ve seen plenty of ‘reaching out’ to customers, regulators and other stakeholders, but what about the poor bloody employee? Even if the culture at VW has tacitly supported the manipulation of emissions tests over the past few years, one must assume that for the majority of employees the recent turn of events is as much a surprise to them as to the wider public. 

I have no doubt the internal communication machine has gone into overdrive in trying to keep people, firstly, informed of the facts and current status and, secondly, attempting to communicate some semblance of ‘business as usual’ (even when it patently isn’t).  The new CEO, Matthias Mueller has a crucial role to play, a role that can’t be delegated to others in the executive team. Of course the demands on his time will be significant but if he understands the link between engaged employees and satisfied customers the residue of trust, which I believe still exists with the VW brand, can be harnessed to mutual benefit.

So it’s important for leadership to understand that VW cannot hope to emerge from this crisis without the support and commitment of its people. But there are also more pragmatic reasons for focusing attention internally. A rush to the exits remains a real possibility as disenchanted employees realise the implications of what’s gone on. And what about maintaining a decent influx of talent to sustain the company in the future? The threat to the ‘employer brand’ becomes very real.

Without clear and consistent, responsive and fact-based communication then the (extreme and opposing) scenarios outlined below could become a reality with all the attendant damage it brings. Think about the simple job interview and the potential response of the uninformed manager (it would be more of a surprise if the candidate didn’t ask about current events, even if only in an innocuous way):

"So tell me how you are responding to events surrounding emissions tests?”, (as opposed to “Tell me why on earth I should join an organisation that has been involved in the wilful and organised deceit of both customers and regulators?”).

Potential answer 1:
Good question. I’m glad you asked me that. Of course you do realise it’s been blown up out of all proportion. A little local difficulty with our friends in the US. Before you know it, everyone will have forgotten about it and we’ll back to the business of selling cars. You really don’t need to worry about it. Next question…”

Potential answer 2:
I’m glad you’ve raised this. To tell you the truth I think we’re doomed. No one is telling us what’s going on and every day brings new revelations.  God knows what the people involved thought they were doing. Now everyone is asking why I work for such and organisation.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring.