Volkswagen, the Chance to rethink what we teach

Article written for Il Sole 24 Ore 
Articolo pubblicato su Il Sole 24 Ore 

If we thought that fraud was exclusive to the financial sector, then the Volkswagen case forces us to reconsider: the problem is much more serious and widespread. This is not an error (errare humanum est), nor guilt by omission, but a crime committed intentionally and with the cleverest malice. The cars produced by Volkswagen were programmed to fool tests that control the emission of harmful gases, so as to pass them even if their emissions exceeded 10 to 40 times the level permitted in the United States. This isn’t so much about C02, but the gas exhaust from diesel engines, which last year the World Health Organization declared to cause tumors, with effects comparable with exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke. To make matters worse, this crime was not committed by a company in a developing country, where the culture of compliance to the rules has not yet developed, but by a company in the country that has made observance of rules a source of national pride: Germany (we dare not imagine what the German newspapers would have written if the company had been Italian).

Unsurprisingly, the price of Volkswagen shares has collapsed. The German automaker faces a fine of up to $18 billion in the US, and its reputation has been ruined worldwide. Equally unsurprisingly, the collapse of Volkswagen shares has dragged down equity markets in Europe and America. The fear is that this isn’t an isolated incident, but a widespread problem. There’s also the fear (or certainty?) that this episode will trigger a severe reaction against companies and a heavy wave of regulation. It’s no exaggeration to say that the German government would be at risk it if were established – as claimed by some – that they were aware of the deception. Such a discovery would also threaten Germany’s moral authority in the eurozone. How could the Germans have been so indignant against Greece for having a government that fiddled with the accounts, if it turns out that their own government has tolerated cheating on the scale of that of Volkswagen?

What is more surprising is that the CEO had hoped to survive in his post. It’s true that – unlike many other companies facing allegations of fraud and corruption that would try to cover up rather than uncover their mistakes – Volkswagen has behaved properly. Volkswagen appointed an independent commission and made a public apology. But either the CEO knew and therefore has to leave because he’s guilty, or he didn’t know and therefore has to leave due to obvious management incompetence. In a company of almost 600 thousand employees, it’s impossible to prevent individual fraud. But this is not individual fraud. This fraud required the involvement of many levels in the organization. This type of fraud is preventable in two ways: an incentive mechanism for employees who report misconduct to the company and a culture that emanates from the top of the company (tone at the top). This culture must make it clear that the objective is not results at any cost, but only results obtained following the rules.

Many remember Milton Friedman’s famous words that the only social responsibility of a company is to increase it profits. Only few remember that the phrase did not end there. With foresight, Friedman added, “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” Unfortunately this second part seems forgotten not only in business but also in the world of business schools. Instead of teaching that the rules must be respected (at least in democratic countries) within individual courses, they prefer to push this to separate ethics courses, which are poorly tolerated and little followed by the students. It’s time that we professors take responsibility and change the way we teach. If culture emanates from the top, it must first emanate from us. If the Volkswagen case produces this change, then those who will die from the excess nitrogen oxide emissions will not have died in vain.


In caso pensassimo le frodi come un patrimonio esclusivo del settore finanziario, il caso Volkswagen ci costringe a ricrederci: il problema è molto più grave e diffuso. Non si tratta di un errore (errare humanum est), neppure di una colpevole omissione, ma di un crimine perpetrato intenzionalmente e con la più scaltra malizia. Le macchine prodotte dalla Volkswagen erano programmate per ingannare i test che controllano le emissioni di gas nocivi, così da passarli, anche se le loro emissioni superavano dalle 10 alle 40 volte il livello consentito negli Stati Uniti. E non parliamo tanto di C02, ma di gas di scarico di motori diesel che l’anno scorso l’Organizzazione mondiale della sanità ha dichiarato essere causa di tumori, con effetti paragonabili all’esposizione secondaria al fumo di sigaretta. A peggiorare la situazione, questo crimine non è stato perpetrato da una società di un paese in via di sviluppo, dove la cultura dell’osservanza alle regole non si è ancora sviluppata, ma da un impresa del paese che fa dell’osservanza delle regole il suo orgoglio nazionale: la Germania (non osiamo immaginare cosa avrebbero scritto i giornali Tedeschi se l’impresa fosse stata Italiana).

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