Is the Volkswagen Scandal Surprising? How Profitability Pressures Drive Corporate Misconduct

By Stephan Manning.

The Volkswagen diesel scandal has been dominating recent news headlines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is accusing the German automaker of using a ‘defeat device’ that manipulates results of health-threatening nitrogen oxides emissions tests by switching the engine to a low-emissions mode when detecting a test. Following the accusations two weeks ago, VW’s stock price has dropped by 40%; Martin Winterkorn has lost his job as CEO; VW will be removed from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index; and the German multinational is facing a lasting damage to its long-built reputation. On top of that, the automaker will need to refit up to 11 Million diesel cars and vans running with the ‘defeat device’ worldwide, incurring costs of $7.3 Billion or more. Current investigations focus on various top executives responsible for letting the fraud happen, including research and development (R&D) managers Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz. But is the scandal just the result of the ‘criminal energy’ of individuals, or is it a more systemic problem? Do rising pressures in a competitive global economy – meeting customer needs and shareholder expectations, driving down costs, adhering to norms and standards – perhaps promote individual cheating and corporate misconduct?

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