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Le scandale de Volkswagen vu sous l’angle de la gouvernance corporative | Raymonde Crête

23 juin 2016

Aujourd’hui, je vous propose la lecture d’un article paru dans la revue European Journal of Risk Regulation (EJRR) qui scrute le scandale de Volkswagen sous l’angle juridique, mais, surtout, sous l’angle des manquements à la saine gouvernance.

Me Raymonde Crête, auteure de l’article, est professeure à la Faculté de Droit de l’Université Laval et elle dirige le Groupe de recherche en droit des services financiers (GRDSF).

Le texte se présente comme un cas en gouvernance et en management. Celui-ci devrait alimenter les réflexions sur l’éthique, les valeurs culturelles et les effets des pressions excessives à la performance.

Vous trouverez, ci-dessous, l’intégralité de l’article avec le consentement de l’auteure. Je n’ai pas inclus les références, qui sont très abondantes et qui peuvent être consultées sur le site de la maison d’édition lexxion.

Bonne lecture !

The Volkswagen Scandal from the Viewpoint of Corporate Governance

par Me Raymonde Crête

I. Introduction

Like some other crises and scandals that periodically occur in the business community, the Volkswagen (“VW”) scandal once again highlights the devastating consequences of corporate misconduct, once publicly disclosed, and the media storm that generally follows the discovery of such significant misbehaviour by a major corporation. Since the crisis broke in September 2015, the media have relayed endless détails about the substantial negative impacts on VW on various stakeholder groups such as employees, directors, investors, suppliers and consumers, and on the automobile industry as a whole (1)

The multiple and negative repercussions at the economic, organizational and legal levels have quickly become apparent, in particular in the form of resignations, changes in VW’s senior management, layoffs, a hiring freeze, the end to the marketing of diesel-engined vehicles, vehicle recalls, a decline in car sales, a drop in market capitalization, and the launching of internal investigations by VW and external investigations by the public authorities. This comes in addition to the threat of numerous civil, administrative, penal and criminal lawsuits and the substantial penalties they entail, as well as the erosion of trust in VW and the automobile industry generally (2).

FILE PHOTO: Martin Winterkorn, chief executive officer of Volkswagen AG, reacts during an earnings news conference at the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Monday, March 12, 2012. Volkswagen said 11 million vehicles were equipped with diesel engines at the center of a widening scandal over faked pollution controls that will cost the company at least 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion). Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Martin Winterkorn

FILE PHOTO: Martin Winterkorn, chief executive officer of Volkswagen AG, reacts during an earnings news conference at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, on Monday, March 12, 2012. Volkswagen said 11 million vehicles were equipped with diesel engines at the center of a widening scandal over faked pollution controls that will cost the company at least 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion). Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Martin Winterkorn

A scandal of this extent cannot fail to raise a number of questions, in particular concerning the cause of the alleged cheating, liable actors, the potential organizational and regulatory problems related to compliance, and ways to prevent further misconduct at VW and within the automobile industry. Based on the information surrounding the VW scandal, it is premature to capture all facets of the case. In order to analyze inmore depth the various problems raised, we will have to wait for the findings of the investigations conducted both internally by the VW Group and externally by the regulatory authorities.

While recognizing the incompleteness of the information made available to date by VW and certain commentators, we can still use this documentation to highlight a few features of the case that deserve to be studied from the standpoint of corporate governance.

This Article remains relatively modest in scope, and is designed to highlight certain organizational factors that may explain the deviant behaviour observed at VW. More specifically, it submits that the main cause of VW’s alleged wrongdoing lies in the company’s ambitious production targets for the U.S. market and the time and budget constraints imposed on employees to reach those targets. Arguably, the corporate strategy and pressures exerted on VW’s employees may have led them to give preference to the performance priorities set by the company rather than compliance with the applicable legal and ethical standards. And this corporate misconduct could not be detected because of deficiencies in the monitoring and control mechanisms, and especially in the compliance system established by the company to ensure that legal requirements were respected.

Although limited in scope, this inquiry may prove useful in identifying means to minimize, in the future, the risk of similar misconduct, not only at VW but wihin other companies as well (3). Given the limited objectives of the Article, which focuses on certain specific organizational deficiencies at VW, the legal questions raised by the case will not be addressed. However, the Article will refer to one aspect of the law of business corporations in the United States, Canada and in the EU Member States in order to emphasize the crucial role that boards in publicly-held companies must exercise to minimize the risk of misconduct (4).

II. A Preliminary Admission by VW: Individual Misconduct by a few Software Engineers

When a scandal erupts in the business community following a case of fraud, embezzlement, corruption, the marketing of dangerous products or other deviant behaviour, the company concerned and the regulatory authorities are required to quickly identify the individuals responsible for the alleged misbehaviour. For example, in the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia scandals of the early 2000s, the investigations revealed that certain company senior managers had acted fraudulently by orchestrating accounting manipulations to camouflage their business’s dire financial situation (5).

These revelations led to the prosecution and conviction of the officers responsible for the corporations’ misconduct (6). In the United States, the importanace of identifying individual wrongdoers is clearly stated in the Principles of Federal Prosecutions of Business Organizations issued by the U.S. Department of Justice which provide guidelines for prosecutions of corporate misbehaviour (7). On the basis of a memo issued in 2015 by the Department of Justice (the “Yatesmemo”) (8), these principles were recently revised to express a renewed commitment to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for corporate wrongdoing.While recognizing the importance of individual prosecutions in that context, the strategy is only one of the ways to respond to white-collar crime. From a prevention standpoint, it is essential to conduct a broader examination of the organizational environment in which senior managers and employees work to determine if the enterprise’s culture, values, policies, monitoring mechanisms and practices contribute or have contributed to the adoption of deviant behaviour (9).

In the Volkswagen case, the company’s management concentrated first on identifying the handful of individuals it considered to be responsible for the deception, before admitting few weeks later that organizational problems had also encouraged or facilitated the unlawful corporate behaviour. Once news broke of the Volkswagen scandal, one of VW’s officers quickly linked the wrongdoing to the actions of a few employees, but without uncovering any governance problems or misbehaviour at the VW management level (10).

In October 2015, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the VW Group in the United States, Michael Horn, stated in testimony before a Congressional Subcommittee: “[t]his was a couple of software engineers who put this for whatever reason » […]. To my understanding, this was not a corporate decision. This was something individuals did » (11). In other words, the US CEO considered that sole responsibility for the scandal lay with a handful of engineers working at the company, while rejecting any allegation tending to incriminate the company’s management.

This portion of his testimony failed to convince the members of the Subcommittee, who expressed serious doubts about placing sole blame on the misbehaviour of a few engineers, given that the problem had existed since 2009. As expressed in a sceptical response from one of the committee’s members: « I cannot accept VW’s portrayal of this as something by a couple of rogue software engineers […] Suspending three folks – it goes way, way higher than that » (12).

Although misconduct similar to the behaviour uncovered at Volkswagen can often be explained by the reprehensible actions of a few individuals described as « bad apples », the violation of rules can also be explained by the existence of organizational problems within a company (13).

III. Recognition of Organizational Failures by VW

In terms of corporate governance, an analysis of misbehaviour can highlight problems connected with the culture, values, policies and strategies promoted by a company’s management that have a negative influence on the behaviour of senior managers and employees. Considering the importance of the organizational environment in which these players act, regulators provide for several internal and external governance mechanisms to reduce the risk of corporate misbehaviour or to minimize agency problems (14). As one example of an internal governance mechanism, the law of business corporations in the U.S., Canada and the EU Member States gives the board of directors (in a one-tier board structure, as prescribed Under American and Canadian corporation law) and the management board and supervisory board (in a two tier board structure, as provided for in some EU Member States, such as Germany) a key role to play in monitoring the company’s activities and internal dealings (15). As part of their monitoring mission, the board must ensure that the company and its agents act in a diligent and honest way and in compliance with the regulations, in particular by establishing mechanisms or policies in connection with risk management, internal controls, information disclosure, due diligence investigation and compliance (16).

When analysing the Volkswagen scandal from the viewpoint of its corporate governance, the question to be asked is whether the culture, values, priorities, strategies and monitoring and control mechanisms established by the company’s management board and supervisory board – in other words « the tone at the top »-, created an environment that contributed to the emergence of misbehaviour (17).

In this saga, although the initial testimony given to the Congressional Subcommittee by the company’s U.S. CEO, Michael Horn, assigned sole responsibility to a small circle of individuals, « VW’s senior management later recognized that the misconduct could not be explained simply by the deviant behaviour of a few people, since the evidence also pointed to organizational problems supporting the violation of regulations (18). In December 2015, VW’s management released the following observations, drawn from the preliminary results of its internal investigation:

« Group Audit’s examination of the relevant processes indicates that the software-influenced NOx emissions behavior was due to the interaction of three factors:

– The misconduct and shortcomings of individual employees

– Weaknesses in some processes

– A mindset in some areas of the Company that tolerated breaches of rules » (19).

Concerning the question of process,VW released the following audit key findings:

« Procedural problems in the relevant subdivisions have encouraged misconduct;

Faults in reporting and monitoring systems as well as failure to comply with existing regulations;

IT infrastructure partially insufficient and antiquated. » (20)

More fundamentally, VW’s management pointed out at the same time that the information obtained up to that point on “the origin and development of the nitrogen issue […] proves not to have been a one-time error, but rather a chain of errors that were allowed to happen (21). The starting point was a strategic decision to launch a large-scale promotion of diesel vehicles in the United States in 2005. Initially, it proved impossible to have the EA 189 engine meet by legal means the stricter nitrogen oxide requirements in the United States within the required timeframe and budget » (22).

In other words, this revelation by VW’s management suggests that « the end justified the means » in the sense that the ambitious production targets for the U.S. market and the time and budget constraints imposed on employees encouraged those employees to use illegal methods in operational terms to achieve the company’s objective. And this misconduct could not be detected because of deficiencies in the monitoring and control mechanisms, and especially in the compliance system established by the company to ensure that legal requirements were respected. Among the reasons given to explain the crisis, some observers also pointed to the excessive centralization of decision-making powers within VW’s senior management, and an organizational culture that acted as a brake on internal communications and discouraged mid-level managers from passing on bad news (23).

IV. Organizational Changes Considered as a Preliminary Step

In response to the crisis, VW’s management, in a press release in December 2015, set out the main organizational changes planned to minimize the risk of similar misconduct in the future. The changes mainly involved « instituting a comprehensive new alignment that affects the structure of the Group, as well as is way of thinking and its strategic goals (24).

In structural terms, VW changed the composition of the Group’s Board of Management to include the person responsible for the Integrity and Legal Affairs Department as a board member (25). In the future, the company wanted to give « more importance to digitalization, which will report directly to the Chairman of the Board of Management, » and intended to give « more independence to brand and divisions through a more decentralized management (26). With a view to initiating a new mindset, VW’s management stated that it wanted to avoid « yes-men » and to encourage managers and engineers « who are curious, independent, and pioneering » (27). However, the December 2015 press release reveals little about VW’s strategic objectives: « Strategy 2025, with which Volkswagen will address the main issues for the future, is scheduled to be presented in mid 2016 » (28).

Although VW’s management has not yet provided any details on the specific objectives targeted in its « Strategy 2025 », it is revealing to read the VW annual reports from before 2015 in which the company sets out clear and ambitious objectives for productivity and profitability. For example, the annual reports for 2007, 2009 and 2014 contained the following financial objectives, which the company hoped to reach by 2018.

In its 2007 annual report,VW specified, under the heading « Driving ideas »:

“Financial targets are equally ambitious: for example, the Volkswagen Passenger Cars brand aims to increase its unit sales by over 80 percent to 6.6 million vehicles by 2018, thereby reaching a global market share of approximately 9 percent. To make it one of the most profitable automobile companies as well, it is aiming for an ROI of 21 percent and a return on sales before tax of 9 percent.” (29).

Under the same heading, VW stated in its 2009 annual report:

“In 2018, the Volkswagen Group aims to be the most successful and fascinating automaker in the world. […] Over the long term, Volkswagen aims to increase unit sales to more than 10 million vehicles a year: it intends to capture an above-average share as the major growth markets develop (30).

And in its 2014 annual report, under the heading « Goals and Strategies », VW said:

“The goal is to generate unit sales of more than 10 million vehicles a year; in particular, Volkswagen intends to capture an above-average share of growth in the major growth markets.”

Volkswagen’s aim is a long-term return on sales before tax of at least 8% so as to ensure that the Group’s solid financial position and ability to act are guaranteed even in difficult market periods (31).

Besides these specific objectives for financial performance, the annual reports show that the company’s management recognized, at least on paper, the importance of ensuring regulatory compliance and promoting corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability (31). However, after the scandal broke in September 2015, questions can be asked about the effectiveness of the governance mechanisms, especially of the reporting and monitoring systems put in place by VW to achieve company goals in this area (33). In light of the preliminary results of VW’s internal investigation (34), as mentionned above, it seems that, in the organizational culture, the commitment to promote compliance, CSR and sustainability was not as strong as the effort made to achieve the company’s financial performance objectives.

Concerning the specific and challenging priorities of productivity and profitability established by VW’s management in previous years, the question is whether the promotion of financial objectives such as these created a risk because of the pressure it placed on employees within the organizational environment. The priorities can, of course, exert a positive influence and motivate employees to make an even greater effort to achieve the objectives (35). On the other hand, the same priority can exert a negative influence by potentially encouraging employees to use all means necessary to achieve the performance objectives set, in order to protect their job or obtain a promotion, even if the means they use for that purpose contravene the regulations. In other words, the employees face a « double bind » or dilemma which, depending on the circumstances, can lead them to give preference to the performance priorities set by the company rather than compliance with the applicable legal and ethical standards.

In the management literature, a large number of theoretical and empirical studies emphasize the beneficial effects of the setting of specific and challenging goals on employee motivation and performance within a company (36). However, while recognizing these beneficial effects, some authors point out the unwanted or negative side effects they may have.

As highlighted by Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman, specific goal setting can result in employees focusing solely on those goals while neglecting other important, but unstated, objectives (37). They also mention that employees motivated by « specific, challenging goals adopt riskier strategies and choose riskier gambles than do those with less challenging or vague goals (38). As an additional unwanted side effet, goal setting can encourage unlawful or unethical behaviour, either by inciting employees to use dishonest methods to meet the performance objectives targeted, or to “misrepresent their performance level – in other words, to report that they met a goal when in fact they fell short (39). Based on these observations, the authors suggest that companies should set their objectives with the greatest care and propose various ways to guard against the unwanted side effects highlighted in their study. This approach could prove useful for VW’s management which will once again, at some point, have to define its objectives and stratégies.

V. Conclusion

In the information released to the public after the emissions cheating scandal broke, as mentioned above, VW’s management quickly stated that the misconduct was directly caused by the individual misbehaviour of a couple of software engineers. Later, however, it admitted that the individual misconduct of a few employees was not the only cause, and that there were also organizational deficiencies within the company itself.

Although the VW Group’s public communications have so far provided few details about the cause of the crisis, the admission by management that both individual and organizational failings were involved constitutes, in our opinion, a lever for understanding the various factors that may have led to reprehensible conduct within the company. Based on the investigations that will be completed over the coming months, VW’s management will be in a position to identify more precisely the nature of these organizational failings and to propose ways to minimize the risk of future violations. During 2016, VW’s management will also announce the objectives and stratégies it intends to pursue over the next few years.

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