Placing Volkswagen Into the Fraud Triangle

Steve Morang, CFE, CIA, CRMA, Senior Manager at Frank Rimerman & Co LLP, began his session today at the ACFE Global Fraud Conference asking attendees to raise their hands if they believed the Volkswagen executives didn’t know anything about the fraudulent emissions tests built into more than 11 million of their diesel cars. Only one person raised his hand. No matter if you think they did know about the manipulation or not, there are lessons to be learned from dissecting what could have possibly led to an ethics failure that cost $35 billion in market capital in just five days.

One way to analyze the scandal is to place it into the Fraud Triangle. Identifying the pressures, rationalizations and opportunities, as Morang did today, shines a light on the dark areas that plague many company’s ethical cultures.

According to Morang, the former CEO’s management style was ruthless. Martin Winterkorn wanted the German car giant to be the No. 1 car maker in the world and that meant making it into the U.S. marketplace with their diesel engine cars. The tone at the top was to get it done and get it done now.

In a 2015 CNBC article, Bernd Osterloh, a supervisory board member for Volkswagen, was quoted as writing in a letter to staff, "We need in future a climate in which problems aren't hidden but can be openly communicated to superiors. We need a culture in which it's possible and permissible to argue with your superior about the best way to go."

The article goes on to reference former company executives describing “a management style under Winterkorn that fostered a climate of fear, an authoritarianism that went unchecked partly due to a company structure unique in the German motor industry.” Upon Winterkorn’s resignation in September of 2015, he said that he was “not aware of any wrongdoing.”

To the people responsible for the manipulation of the engines, Morang said the tampering was done for what the employees under pressure thought was the greater good. They were using the same utilitarian ethics that I described in my post yesterday. There was a mentality that it was okay to bend the rules so that Volkswagen, and the investors, could come out ahead. In other words, the ends (larger profits, notoriety and reputation) justified the means (fraudulent emissions tests).

When an employee or group of employees (the investigation is still ongoing) discovered that the diesel cars could be wired to cheat emissions tests, the legs of the Fraud Triangle moved quickly into place. By adding the pressure to enter the U.S. market with the rationalization of putting the company above all else, in addition to the opportunity to fool emissions tests, the slippery slope soon looked like an easy path to take.

By understanding the pressures, rationalizations and opportunities that contributed to the actions taken either by a few or many, the top, middle or the bottom, anti-fraud professionals can take away practical tools to use when examining their own company’s ethical culture.