Job Rotation should not be seen as a quick-fix

Volkswagen use of job rotation is using the wrong set of tools and fixing the leak not the plumbing


Today´s report in the Business Insider, Volkswagen is going to ‘rotate staff’ to improve oversight concerning Volkswagen supervisory board chief Hans Dieter´s decision to use job rotation as a mechanism to “break up long-standing structures that allowed rules to be broken” feels as much a quick-fix as it does a return to industrial age leadership mentality.

Job rotation where “relevant employees will only stay a certain amount of time in a specific job and then change,” as Dieter was reported as saying, is normally viewed as a positive initiative. MSG lists the benefits of job rotation as a strategic HR tool that creates in-role challenge and motivation, broadens knowledge skills, attributes and horizons, aligns competences and reduces turnover. For decades, employee rotation has been viewed a superb in-role development alternative to formal leadership training.

The idea of using job rotation as a prevention/deterrent to break up (unethical) organized behaviours is not only a step backwards in leadership practice but is a sticky tape solution. Any systems thinking leader knows the dangers of attempting to react/solve problems at the surface level rather than looking at the underlying causes. The Four Levels of Thinking or Iceberg Model devised by Goodman, Maani, Cavana and others neatly exemplifies this:


Take the recent example of Toshiba Corp’s accounting scandal where the company overstated earnings by more than $1.2 billion over seven years. As you see in this Guardian report, everyone is quick to blame the issue on lack of corporate governance including the Japanese finance minister, Taro Aso, who said:

If [Japan] fails to implement appropriate corporate governance, it could lose the market’s trust. It’s very regrettable.

Several weeks later, detailed investigations revealed a different story, a story that is hidden deeper under the surface not just at the level of events and patterns but at the level of structures and entrenched ways of thinking and culture (or mental models). The Japan Times highlights the deeper systemic issues to do with behaviours and lack of diversity in Japanese Corporate culture – a culture that is driven by numbers and targets and has a subordinating culture where employees are expected to toe the corporate line. At the time when the story broke, everyone wanted to fix the problem at the level of governance (through regulation and compliance); deeper thinking reveals a more complex problem of organizational culture which is going to require a longer-term behavioural/cultural shift.

Let´s return back to Volkswagen. Announcing today a programme of job rotations is using the wrong set of tools and fixing the leak not the plumbing. Company scandals and crises are a great opportunity for organisations to look deeply at its leadership and culture; maybe in the coming months, Volkswagen leadership will begin to approach this crisis more systemically.

by Ric Kelly PhD