Das Deception: VW Probe Deepens

When a corporate scandal hits, it typically takes a while to identify all the key players.

So, it probably shouldn’t be shocking to learn that the ongoing investigation involving Volkswagen is now expanding to include managers who may have looked the other way as engineers installed software designed to manipulate emissions controls during laboratory tests in roughly 11 million Volkswagen diesel vehicles since 2009.

As the New York Times reports, “a person briefed on the inquiry” says the probe—being conducted by law firm Jones Day, at the behest of the Volkswagen supervisory board—could soon see as many as 10 Volkswagen employees being suspended.

While some of these individuals were engineers “directly involved in programming cars to cheat on emissions tests,” the Jones Day investigation is now taking a closer look at “managers [who] may have learned of the deception and failed to take appropriate action,” according to the Times.

So, it seems the seat could start to get pretty hot for some Volkswagen managers in the days and weeks to come. But the organization’s leadership is already under heavy fire for the part it played—or didn’t play, as it were—in gaming the emissions testing process for more than five years, and its top executive has already toppled from his perch.

On Sept. 3, Volkswagen opted to explain to federal regulators why many of its diesel automobiles were emitting more toxic emissions on the road than they did in the test lab. (The automaker’s alternative was losing Environmental Protection Agency certification for all of its 2016 diesel models.)

Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen’s U.S. business, appeared before Congress earlier this month. Horn testified that he was aware of potential issues as far back as spring 2014, but claimed he didn’t know for sure until this past September that the company had been using illegal software to deceive emissions testers.

At least three members of Volkswagen’s supervisory board “have said they learned of the illegal software from media reports on Sept. 18,” the Times reports. Now-former Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterkorn claims to have been in the dark all along, however. In a Sept. 23 statement announcing his resignation, Winterkorn said he was “ ‘shocked’ to learn of the deception and had committed no wrongdoing,” according to the Times, which notes that shareholder representatives have criticized Winterkorn’s failure to keep them informed as the controversy unfolded.

Former employees have joined the chorus as well, condemning “what they said was a culture inside Volkswagen that centralized decision making at company headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, and discouraged open discussion of problems, creating a climate in which people may have been fearful of speaking up,” the Times reports.

It may be months before this web is untangled, and we have a better sense of who knew what and when they knew it. But it’s probably safe to go ahead and classify the Volkswagen emissions saga as yet another reminder of just how wrong things can go in organizations that don’t effectively communicate with their people, and in cultures where employees are afraid to blow the whistle on unethical behavior.