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Interview with Kurt Michels

“People who report misconduct act courageously and responsibly”

The Volkswagen Group has reorganized its whistleblower system with effect from November 1. Its aim is to detect and stop serious violations of laws and internal rules of conduct. In this interview, Kurt Michels, Head of Group Compliance, explains how the new system works and how it protects whistleblowers, implicated parties and the Company.

Whistleblower system – that sounds a bit sinister. What's it all about?

Every company has an interest in detecting serious misconduct early, process the information gained and put a stop to the misconduct as soon as possible. Otherwise, major loss or damage and legal consequences may ensue for the company and its employees. We can learn from the disclosures and reshape the Company for the better. The whistleblower system we’ve introduced at Volkswagen is a procedure that employees – as well as business partners and customers – can use to pass on information, for example, to highlight illegal conduct by members of our workforce. The system, which comes on line on November 1, has been enhanced to make it even fairer, more transparent and faster. At the same time, there will be greater protection for whistleblowers and the persons implicated.

What exactly does that mean?

To date, we've been working with 25 standalone systems for the different brands and companies. In future, there will be one central Investigation Office for Volkswagen, which will be part of Group Compliance. In addition, there will be other investigation offices at Volkswagen Truck & Bus, Audi and Porsche. This will give us a better perspective on the disclosures made and make it easier for us to determine, for example, whether a problem is confined to a specific area or company, or whether it affects the entire Group. In the interest of those implicated, we always work according to strictly defined principles to ensure a fair, transparent and speedy process.

How do you make sure that no one is wrongly suspected?

Experienced lawyers and defense attorneys work in our team. They follow up on the tip-offs, taking both incriminating and exonerating factors into account. An official investigation will only be launched after very careful examination and only, if there is concrete evidence of a serious breach of the rules. The persons implicated are presumed innocent for as long proof of any violation of the rules has not been established. They are treated fairly, their response is heard as soon as possible, and they are informed of the outcome of the investigation and vindicated if they have been wrongly accused. Persons implicated have the right, at any time, to be advised by a member of the competent works council or a lawyer, and to be accompanied to interviews. The entire investigation process is subject to strict confidentiality and secrecy. Disclosures are assessed in a fair, speedy and sensitive manner.

What if the line manager or colleagues get to hear about the allegations despite the confidentiality?

We work very carefully and do everything we can to protect the persons implicated. If no proof of any violation is established, we do everything in our power to prevent damage to the reputation of the person affected. For example, we will support them in communicating with their surroundings. If the line manager is not aware of the situation, the person affected can decide whether to inform them. At the affected party's request, their line manager or another person in authority will state clearly that the person implicated was wrongly suspected.

What happens to employees proven to have committed serious violations?

Such violations will be pursued appropriately. This process will take into account the principle of proportionality as well as the seriousness of the violation, the employee’s past contribution, their responsibility in the Volkswagen Group and other particular circumstances. A decision on whether to report the case to the prosecuting authorities will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

People who report grievances can easily make themselves unpopular. How do you protect whistleblowers from being discriminated against?

Just as we protect the person implicated, we also provide extensive protection to the whistleblower. We treat the whistleblower’s identity and their details with strict confidentiality. In addition, discrimination against whistleblowers is a serious violation, which we won't tolerate. People discriminated against because they've blown the whistle will be given support at once. The investigation Office will immediately follow up on any evidence in this regard.

What if someone still has concerns?

There is also an option to make disclosures of serious violations anonymously. A major disadvantage in that case is that it’s impossible or very difficult to get in touch with the whistleblower for queries in order to shed more light on the matter. Initially, many disclosures do not provide enough detail to take further action. As a result, many anonymous disclosures cannot be pursued further. This is why I want to plead with our employees not to communicate anonymously when contacting the whistleblower system.

Isn't it too easy to simply report a colleague's or line manager's misconduct, rather than confront the individual concerned?

Those who make a disclosure, providing concrete details of a serious violation to the best of their knowledge and belief, act courageously and accept responsibility. They help avert serious damage and legal consequences. Studies have shown that whistleblowers don’t take lightly the decision to disclose this kind of information and that disclosures made by whistleblowers are the most common source of information in the detection of criminal acts in organizations.

What kind of information are you after?

Our focus is on disclosures of serious violations of laws, in particular criminal law, and violations of US environmental regulations. Infringements of our Code of Conduct or other internal regulations may also constitute serious violations. For all other types of disclosures – we refer to them as other violations – the Investigation Office delegates the process of looking into the disclosure to suitable units in the Company and assures the quality of the process by means of samples. But we have to be clear that the purpose of the whistleblower system is not to solve day-to-day conflicts in the workplace or to deal with personnel matters, mistakes etc. if they do not involve a violation of the rules. These types of issues should be discussed openly and resolved constructively in dialog with colleagues and managers.

How is the whistleblower system linked to the Code of Conduct, which is also new?

The Code of Conduct defines what honest conduct, compliance and integrity mean at Volkswagen. The Code of Conduct thus provides guidance: those who adhere to it can be sure that they are doing the right thing and are acting in the Company's interest. By the way, the fact that the Code of Conduct was developed within just a few months is a very good example of excellent and very constructive collaboration among all areas of the Group. Through this joint process, we have created a code of conduct that is the envy of many other companies. We can be proud of that achievement.

How do I make a disclosure?

Disclosures can be made online, by phone, by letter, by fax, or in person. The central point of contact is the Investigation Office, which is part of Group Compliance. There are other investigation offices at Volkswagen Truck & Bus, Audi and Porsche. The four investigation offices collaborate closely.

Disclosures can also be made anonymously or to ombudspersons, who, as lawyers, are subject to special confidentially requirements. They pass on facts to the Investigation Office only by arrangement with the whistleblower:

Every employee can make disclosures. But the information can also come from suppliers or sales partners, for example.

Video (German only)