Living Inside a Pariah Company

Doggie at Door Exile iStock_000042122536_smallLast week I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal has created tremors beyond even recent examples.

But in the days since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it be like to be an employee of VW in these difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it cause people – and what can they do?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book last year, tentatively titled “Working for the Pariahs: Can Good People Stop Organizations Going Bad?”  He send me an early draft outline last year, and I’m re-reading it again now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading. [Matt – when are you going to finish this book?]

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

I hope Matt finishes his book. It’s got some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for right now, I want to focus on what an individual at VW might be thinking about, what they can do, and what we can do to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seems a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”  This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.


Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at the VW scandal/syndrome, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.

The VW Trust Sinkhole: It’s Worse Than You Think

copyright Nate Osborne 2013A. The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal.

Q. What do you get when you assign German engineering the task of developing a high-performance trust-and-ethics violation?

If you don’t know the basics of the VW emissions scandal, read up on it here. The basics: on the diesel engine models it sent to the EPA for US emissions testing, VW installed software to automatically  reduce emissions, then move back to high performance and high emissions after it was done being tested.

There are lots of issues this scandal raises; for example, the depressing fact that the majority of letters-to-the-editor in the Wall Street Journal regarding the its (excellent) coverage are complaints about the ineptitude of the EPA, rather than the venality of VW.

There are certainly interesting issues about the relative harm caused by this scandal vs. others.  Will more creatures be harmed by 40x stated emissions from 11 million cars than were harmed by the BP spill in the Gulf? Will VW’s 35% hit in the stock market be more expensive than damages caused by the systematic rigging of LIBOR rates? Will the hit to German engineering and branding exceed that to the oil industry of the Exxon Valdez?

Yeah yeah, maybe. But what I want to focus on is the scope and nature of the trust violation that Volkswagen engineered here – and to argue that it’s much worse most other violations, including the LIBOR scandal. Its only close competitor in venality is Enron.

The Scale of the Violation

In in industry that has a history of thumbing its nose at regulation and buying off (aka lobbying) regulatory efforts, this stands out. Software has long been available to tweak performance; but to have a company that aspired to being number one in the world to make it automated enough to install across millions of vehicles, designed specifically to intuit a regulatory testing environment, requires a level of coordination and group effort that goes way beyond an individual.

This was not a case of individual malfeasance with a few willing bad actors, like LIBOR or Bernie Madoff. This was not a case of a series of close calls that went wrong, a la BP or Barings. This, like Enron, was a coordinated case of several people in roles of leadership who clearly knew they were doing something illegal, and were doing it on a large scale.

Winterkorn himself can’t plead technical ignorance, a la Carly Fiorina; unlike her, he was not a marketing guy. In fact, before becoming CEO in 2007, he was the top executive in charge of “technical development,” encompassing engineering and innovation. Clean diesel was a strategic imperative, and something he knew a lot about. Ignorance won’t be easy for him to claim.

The Depth of the Venality

VW management had been denying there was a problem for going on three years. In 2014, VW insisted the disparities were due to technical issues, and renewed the claims as recently as early last month (August).

And that’s not all. Even after coming clean, VW pleaded with regulators to get its 2016 models certified, “claiming it had swelling inventories that it needed to get to showrooms.” Way to show contrition.

That’s not all either. Now-former-CEO Winterkorn finally did the right thing today, September 23, by resigning; why he did not do so immediately on September 18, can only be explained by a view that this scandal is only a PR problem, to be ‘managed’ like any other business issue. Way to show a commitment to ethical behavior.

And that’s not all. VW’s cheating directly contradicted its stated advertising, that “those old diesel realities [stinky, smoky, sluggish] no longer apply.” Way to shoot your strategic message in the foot.

In short: this involved a lot of people, doing a lot of complicated malfeasance, over an extended period of time, denying flatly what were doing, claiming that they were in favor of what they were actually harming, and demonstrating a callous disregard for national governments, their legal regulators, and their used-to-be-brand-loyal customers.

It’s like their famous ad of a few years ago, The Force: except how we find out that we were the kid, and VW management was controlling the engine all along.


This seems to me the leading candidate for Worst Trust Fiasco of the Century (so far). Any other nominations?