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  • Sj. (Sjoerd) Vredenberg

The expanding world of integrity

Author Sj. (Sjoerd) Vredenberg

Undesirable behavior… a term apparently different from unauthorized behavior but at least as often front page news. In day-to-day life we consider all misery we have laws and regulations around to be unauthorized and therefore unacceptable. We keep it in control by enforcement, investigation and prosecution. However, most behaviors outside boundaries of laws and regulations is experienced undesirable. Confusing actually...

Transgressive and undesirable behavior might be so often in the media, just because we weren't yet able to, or didn't yet want to capture it in legislation and regulation. That world is dynamic and full in motion: who or what determines the boundary that is crossed and who or what makes something undesirable?

Recent Dutch scandals in sports, media, parliament and health care contribute to the discussion about – what I just will call – the integrity domain. While integrity incidents in former days mainly had to do with behavior that was stopped due to laws and regulations, recent scandals, as referred to above, have to do with behavior that we collectively no longer tolerate in society. We are talking ethical issues that appear.

Confusion and calmness

Recurring in what we saw around these scandals: amazement about the misstep itself, we were surprised by the non-isolated character of it, and we were astonished by the sometimes clumsy ways in follow-up, in which errors were piled up while handling.

Not that long ago integrity used to be about ‘compromising the perception of ones reliability by doing things that are not allowed’. The Risk management and Compliance departments tried to keep control on these cases by well-thought-out processes. They translated laws and regulations (standards) into appropriate policies en set up the resulting control. They monitored proper working of this control and by doing so the level of complying with the policy. In the event of established misery, an agreed sanctioning policy was applied.

This approach will also bring us further in getting in control on the ‘new integrity matters’ described above, those more ethically related. Also here goes: know your profile, set standards, control, protocolize and investigate. In other words: the content is different but the way you approach it is the same!

Setting standards

Creating an unsafe working environment through offensive communication… Making undesirable sexually remarks… Knowingly not taking into account the climate-damaging consequences of your actions… Whether behavior crosses a boundary or not starts and ends with a shared view on so called ‘red lines’. The new integrity domain is not reserved for the legislator, but for those involved who determine the 'red line' in a certain context. That's what I call setting standards.

The red line

The first step in setting standards is about a common determination of the red line: mutually agree what – depending your situation – the red line entails: how to recognize, how to notice? Which alarm bells do exist and which symptoms may be trusted as red flags in the future? Answers to these questions provide clarity. Not least for potential ‘perpetrators’ in order not to get at the wrong side of the line. It also creates clarity for possible victims for not exaggerating about behavior that is obviously on the safe side of the line but, without any hesitation, sending an equally powerful message about the others! The hysteria of primary school girls should, as a set standard of not accepted mood-making, prevent male teachers for not being able to function in primary schools, whilst the real evil, of course, should never ever happen!

What is not acceptable in one social environment is sometimes necessary in another. Where physical contact in an office environment between manager and employee is on the wrong side of the red line, it is under certain circumstances not the case in a healthcare environment between care recipient and care provider. Uniform standards as one fits all approaches are not going to help us. What is really going to bring us steps ahead, are customized red lines which can recurrently be reassessed and calibrated. Clearly described and measurable!

Cause and impact

The second step in setting standards concerns proper distinguishment between indicators, causes, the damaging behavior itself, negative impact and symptoms of the last two. It sharpens the image of the red line.

The indicator teaches us about the likeliness of an incident, in case we don’t take actions. It tells us about our vulnerability. Examples of indicators are: how are things organized, age ratio’s, staff turnover, customer/member loss, business environment, governance style and level of inclusiveness.

Awareness of root causes gives us insight into the origin of the issues en therewith the ability to install ‘smart measurement tools’ for early incident detection and prevention.

In the newspapers we read about the event itself. By then, the suffering has already been done. No doubt that this event is what should be avoided. But we also aim to avoid putting a sticking plaster on a wooden leg.

Knowing consequences is a prerequisite for being able to react sufficiently to an incident. That applies first of all to victims, but then also to the organization itself. Where we didn’t want to put sticking plasters on wooden legs, we certainly not only want to fight against consequences.

Symptoms are of course not what we are fighting against. But knowledge about symptoms and awareness about where they might appear gives us massive ability for detection and the possibility to ‘act in an early stage’!

Detection, prevention en correctiton

That brings me to the third and final step in setting standards: determining the bar and its height (setting the standard) when it comes down to how and to what extent we want to control the integrity risk. What are our objectives with regards to the ability to identify as good and as early as possible (detection)? What do we want to have been set up, in order to avoid behavior at the wrong side of the red line (prevention)? And what do we want to be ready to use for alleviation and recovery in the event of a misstep (correction)?


In particular in the expanding world of integrity we need something to hold on to. That starts with a shared perception of the red line, how we watch (guard) over it, how we prevent that one goes beyond it and how we deal in case it is crossed. Take this as an organization with a broad representation into serious consideration. And let that start with setting standards…

For the print version of this article, click here.


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