The Integrity Talks

Dear FTM, rules serve people more than people serving rules

The Integrity Talks

Oh, my. Follow The Money (FTM) criticizes the world of integrity. As the owner of The Integrity Talks, and as someone who knows this domain, I have the enormous urge to respond to the content of Matthijs Kaaks, lawyer, and author of the piece. Although Kaaks definitely brings across a couple of justified points, though using some weak practical examples in his argumentation, which I do not want to discuss any further, I cannot agree at all with the idea that the domain of integrity would undermine laws and regulations. Let me explain.


Matthijs Kaaks criticizes the integrity agencies mercilessly in this long read via FHM. Because of the public debate, and the greater importance of keeping the human factor, I would like to contradict the content. I repeat: nothing but the content.

I do see many journalists partaking in politics, and publicly shaming others sometimes. That is not how I am wired. Therefore, I spoke extensively with Kaak to explain my points, and to indicate that this article would be published. Likewise, I have respect for the work of FTM, and in particular for Eric Smit, whom I have informed via email.

I wrote this article as an independent storyteller to share insights. Of course, no one asked or paid me to do this. As we say: all good.

Dangerous development

In his article, Matthijs Kaaks discusses that unacceptable behavior nowadays does not only refer to sexually unacceptable. We have placed various complaints about different forms of serious unacceptable behavior under one umbrella term. Think of matters such as social insecurity, hurtful and intimidating comments, and bullying, including matters such as racism.

Because of the momentum of moving towards a society in which the human factor is being redefined, I do not believe that this development is all that bad. As long as we are concrete instead of just expressing ourselves using umbrella terms.

Kaaks says that the associations with the term unacceptable behavior are shaped by that umbrella term, and that the one-size-fits-all approach (in other words, throwing everything together) has led us to downplay serious crimes such as sexually unacceptable behavior.

I don’t see the latter happening on a large scale at all. Not with the public, and not with the in-crowd who work with these themes. I cannot imagine this happening in the legal world either. Common sense… In addition, every right-minded person in the public distinguishes one case from another, if indeed the journalists do mention them together for convenience. At the very least, it is everyone’s responsibility to do so.

In his article, Kaaks talks about a misty moral testing framework. Because it is not the legal norms that are being violated, but the social and moral norms. Thus, the integrity industry is undermining laws and regulations. He believes that this is a dangerous development. Is that so?

Integrity as blackmail and change

Kaaks talks about actual exposures based on laws and regulations, versus character assassination and libel and slander based on subjectivity. Not entirely illogical because Kaaks knows a lot about that area, as he represents the interests of clients in these types of matters.

In other words, people might have shown unacceptable behavior, but have not committed a criminal offense. Or their reputation has been tarnished by impure motives of others, such as hypocrisy, self-pity, and irritability. Or a person wants to kick someone out, engage in politics, and support his or her own gain, including scoring journalism.

In other words, the risk is that ecosystems will have to comply with rules that have not been laid down by the legislator, but that are fleshed out by what those involved in the ecosystem experience as safe and unsafe, desirable and undesirable; meaning, culture, mentality, and perception of safety. Would that be so wrong?

The risk is that (anonymous) reporters will gain too much power. This makes me laugh, but I should actually cry about it. Because when in history have whistleblowers ever had too much power? According to Kaak, they will determine what the standard will be instead of the employer. They will transform such an ecosystem into a minefield. In such cases, boundaries will be blurring, and research agencies will be called in by employers out of inconvenience. Kaaks believes that the ‘crime description’ of unacceptable behavior is stretched that much, that perpetrators and victims in this type of investigation become interchangeable.

The marketing of research into unacceptable behavior is not hindered by this, on the contrary. Because the broader the term ‘unacceptable’, the more research, says Kaaks. Again, it becomes objectively difficult to determine whether someone has crossed the line or not because integrity has become a kind of blackmail and change. And Kaaks believes that copying blindly what commercial researchers conclude in their reports at the request of their clients is not a wise thing to do.

Middle finger

The issue is not that Kaaks does not flag justified risks with all the points that he is making. It is that his view remains incredibly limited, and that we are in a transitional phase, in which matters go wrong indeed. More importantly, the risks pointed out by Kaaks do not weigh up against the need to guarantee integrity and humanity, and to offer humane protection – also outside Kaaks’ domain, and also through reports and integrity investigations. The undertone becomes almost like showing the middle finger to this domain. Although I know that he has no intention of doing so, especially after speaking with him on the phone.

In fact, as if he is even in favor of maintaining power structures and patterns, including individual suffering and injustice. Or as if he is completely blind to the violations of humanity and integrity among our unprivileged, vulnerable, or minorities, possibly due to his privileged position in society. Even if this is not true, it is the aftertaste that I could have after reading his article.

Through a living hell

Alright. To explain this, I will start at the beginning, namely with my support towards the integrity agencies. What Kaaks is absolutely right about is that matters still go wrong in this domain – including what I just took from his article. That processes are sometimes not yet properly organized, and that, as is often the case in an intermediate phase, it is a mess. Indeed, because of the euro signs in front of people’s eyes, and the opportunism at the level of the puppets in action.

But when integrity agencies work professionally, they work precisely with person-oriented investigations into alleged integrity violations based on laws and regulations. This is to allow impartiality and reason to be leading in such a process.

It is not for nothing that we have a new Whistleblower Protection Act within the EU, which should provide better support for processes and whistleblowers (we will have to see how it will go in practice). The better-known Working Conditions Act also makes integrity violations somewhat explicit. More and more companies have their own integrity policies based on legislation, or at least something such as regulations, and codes of conduct. Oh my, if companies do not have that in order. Not, oh my, that we are moving towards a society in which this will become self-evident.

Besides, there will be another law for mandatory confidential advisors within companies. Organizations get the time for this, so that smaller companies can keep up with this development and adjust. In general, we really want to work professionally, thoroughly, and fairly on integrity for the sake of humanity; in other words, the human factor. Because it is desperately needed. All that suffering, and all those terrible stories of whistleblowers from the (recent) past, show it. Believe me, some histories, for example within large corporates, are gruesome.

Reporters who have gone through a living hell because they wanted to address and change a lack of integrity and humanity. Because everything that was in place in theory was not enough in practice, including the juridification. Because all factors – including the structures of industries, and people’s behavior such as looking away, excluding, ignoring, etc. – have perpetuated integrity violations within the various ecosystems. Sometimes whistleblowers made a report for their own sake. More often, they did so for justice and sustainable change for others inside and outside the ecosystem. With what I have done myself around breaking open closed-up communities to uphold children’s and human rights, I do recognize myself in them.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

In the world of integrity agencies, we can separate the wheat from the chaff by looking firstly at matters such as testing and licensing requirements based on the Private Security Organizations and Investigation Agencies Act. Companies can search for an associated registration, namely a POB number, as we know it from other industries.

Of course, this world can be honed from the perspective of reliability, professionalism, impartiality of judgment, and supervision. This also applies, for example, to confidential advisors, and the training to become one.

Only, give this domain a break. After all, it takes time for the integrity world to mature. Grant them that. We are building on the initial start of risk and compliance. It took some time for that domain to be taken seriously as well, beyond the generally prevailing check-in-the-box mentality of just having to comply with the rules. Beyond taking it into account, without urgency at the top of the ecosystems, mainly because those people felt no personal interest at all.

Moreover, we can separate the wheat from the chaff by looking at whom those professionals are who work in this domain. Unlike other arbitrary industries, I have noticed that a lot of integrity professionals have themselves endured lack of morals, ethics, and integrity – sometimes great injustice – in their lives. They can grasp unacceptable behavior from much deeper layers than people who have never experienced such a matter. Sometimes, we might add: people who know privilege. I emphasize: sometimes – not always.

They have a drive and commitment, like a former cancer patient turned medical specialist, who can now operate in quality of life after cancer. We should view this as strength because precisely those people hope to (normatively and humanistically) improve the world a bit more from a place of idealism. In other words, having the best of intentions. I recognize that in myself. In an ideal status quo, after some movement, that kind of participation leads to the best result in the collective. Weaknesses can be that these people are too empathetic, and therefore become subjective. For example, they cannot handle someone’s suffering. Or they use their feelings too much, instead of reason. This can obscure the independence of going through the process without judgment.

In doing so, Kaaks seems to ignore completely the fact that those involved are incredibly vulnerable to counter-reactions during such an investigation process, including revenge. Yet, these professionals venture into these kinds of complex processes every day. As a lawyer, he can certainly understand.

I can’t imagine taking such risks. And I really can’t imagine the courage that it takes. In short, we should have a little more appreciation, respect, and once again patience for what those professionals do.

Above all, Kaaks seems to forget that rules serve people more than people serving rules. In other words, laws and regulations exist for humanity. Humanity is not there for the laws and regulations, but has only to comply with them.

We have something like laws and regulations, in other words risk, governance, compliance, and integrity (I deliberately separate integrity here) to serve humanity. Especially to be able to protect our unprivileged, vulnerable, or our minorities, who in turn should also protect themselves. And to be able to offer people opportunities, who in turn should also stimulate those themselves. Social and moral values that we continuously evolve together so that we can shift from Darwinism to abundance. Oh, my, that is so needed indeed. And oh, my, what a complex job. It is not legislation and regulations as a dry phenomenon that gets this process started.

Human factor without juridification

Personally, I even go one step further. Do we find ourselves in the midst of enlightenment? At least, we definitely find ourselves in a period in which there is a collective opening for a re-evaluation of what we understand to be the human factor – with all its strengths and weaknesses. Juridification is sometimes not even relevant for recognizing what is degrading so that we can raise and improve structurally and normatively! Because to determine what we consider ethical, and what not, or which direction we want to take, we often do not need any legalization at all. Only the right balance between feeling and ratio, alone and with each other. Legalization can be a derivative of ‘each other’. But it starts with intentions and attitude, followed by behavior – for example, listening to each other respectfully. It starts with the human factor.

When there is so much movement like in current times, we can also be more lenient if there are still blind spots among the reporting parties who have undergone terrible unacceptable behavior, and do not know the processes well. For example, if they are too close to the research agency. Or if they let their voices be heard too early via the press. That will change over time.

Sometimes, it is the rigidity of the legalization that makes us unnecessarily harsh on so many who have gone through terrible experiences, and carry those experiences with them. Those who sacrifice so much to speak out. Those who do not invent, exaggerate or spin those things at all. We protect violations of integrity inadvertently, and lack of humanity, with that same rigidity.

I have no statistics. But I can imagine that the number of people with impure motives, such as hypocrisy, self-pity, and irritability as referred to by Kaaks is much less than the number with serious experiences of unacceptable behavior.

Progress to be proud of

In this day and age, we would almost forget that integrity is inspiring, and that it promotes the well-being of all of us inside and outside the diverse ecosystems. Integrity in the sense of being integrated as a human being. Of holding on to one’s compass. Of doing the right thing when no one is watching. Of pure intentions, attitudes, and behavior, even when we are not around others.

In his article, Kaaks overlooks the positive side of integrity unintentionally, thus the consequences of integrity, for example a significant increase in meaning, happiness, vitality, harmony, and cooperation. While organizations are now rightly so, more ecosystems in which personal growth of individuals is made possible. That does not sound as a misty moral testing framework to me, but as progress to be proud of, and to hold on to.

Man’s manufacturability

This brings me to my own modest contribution to this domain.

Laws and regulations, codes of conduct, policy, and leading by example by the top of the ecosystems all have limitations. For example, making cultural and mentality change, and making safety perception measurable/concrete are worth striving for, but continue to have shortcomings. These matters are subject to maintenance. None of these building blocks are completely solid and permanently resistant. That in itself is not terrible, and moreover logical. In that sense, Kaaks may be right when he talks about a misty moral testing framework.

I have no illusions that entire ecosystems – for example in large enterprise – will change in no time at all based on imposed improvements, thus on morals, ethics, and integrity. In other words, based on the building blocks as just mentioned. That is realistic and sad sometimes. This has to do with the illusion of man’s malleability, or the well-known discussion of nature versus nurture.

Behavior is somewhat measurable/concrete. However, intentions and attitude are not. From that perspective, desirable behavior occurs when someone wants to do something (motivation), can do something (capacity), and has the opportunity to do something (opportunity). But let’s be honest. This is very much being tested under pressure.

More importantly, on the scale between the dark triad on the one hand, and those with a strong moral compass on the other hand, even if adherence to integrity or contradiction works to their detriment, is the vast majority of humanity who can be inspired in terms of integrity. Yet, also those who will never be able to change.

The core of why integrity is so complex is that some are unwilling or unable to improve at all. Not so much that integrity means different things to different people, and is then put together as a collective. For example, I read a lot about people’s soft skills, and the so-called soft controls within certain industries to test intentions, attitude, and behavior.

For example, I read that we can support people with the right building blocks to develop empathy. But experiencing something because others experience it, or recognizing it in practice, and then quickly switching mode to imitate it, is different from feeling it, and being able to do it from a pure base.

That is why so many narcissists achieve great successes in diverse ecosystems. They know how to imitate soft skills, all while they know how to trample others pathologically and structurally. I repeat: trample. Just repeat that word a few times, and then try to comprehend what it must feel like inside a person. How that can degrade humans long term. Trample. In short, integrity remains complex because we simply cannot access the other person’s intentions.

Life with integrity

This is why I firmly believe in working 1:1 with people to live with integrity. Based on their blueprint more than on imposed factors, such as culture and mentality, or policy, laws, and regulations. This is the part that individuals can be fully responsible for. The part that many do not dare to investigate, afraid of what they will find, and what the consequences will be. Rightly so because living a life with integrity means a lot of loss, and not just gain. Trust me, I can relate to it in my own life. Afraid to give themselves permission to live by that blueprint. Especially women who still have to get rid of transgenerational, imposed restrictions. Feel free to say chains. This is my piece in its entirety!

When more and more people start to live a life with integrity based on their blueprint, a force field will arise within and outside the various ecosystems. Some will still not evolve along with this, but the balance will shift.

Worst case, if that does not happen, so if no normative increase occurs, the consequences of living a life with integrity for the individual and the collective can only work out for the better. Because if an individual actually starts living a life with integrity – I also call this living gracefully and mind building, it cannot be stopped if it goes well. There is only progress, even when there is regression. Indeed, even when the individual ends up leaving the ecosystem.

To conclude, let me turn that around. How can we expect ecosystems to raise norms, and counter violations of integrity and humanity, if individuals themselves do not live a life with integrity? When we talk about a misty moral testing framework, this is exactly why it remains so misty. Nothing else.

The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.