Integrity is priority no. 1

How does Dutch Customs create and maintain a safe and professional environment?

Integrity and acting with integrity are high on the agenda of Dutch Customs. The theme is being discussed extensively from the work floor to the boardroom. For example, there is a lot of talk about moral workmanship and ethical leadership, plenty of attention for high-risk functions, and an increasing number of options for reporting signs of (potential) abuse. Frans van Oostrum, Integrity and Safety Implementation Manager, and CFO Bob de Baedts about the importance of integrity management in creating a safe professional environment.

Starting point: Customs NL scores high as far as integrity is concerned. Customs officials are proud of their work and want to do things as well as possible. However, this is being eclipsed by reports about recent integrity incidents within the administration. De Baedts emphasises that “any incident is one too many”. “Customs officers who break the rules not only harm themselves, but also the image of our agency and the government. More than 99.9% of the staff is not involved in objectionable practices. We therefore invest in the further professionalisation of our integrity management system, as well as in the further development of moral workmanship of our staff members.”

Extensive trust
“It is self-evident that our administration acts forcefully against employees guilty of illegal activities,” says Van Oostrum. “Once incidents have occurred, every organisation reviews the measures that can be taken to prevent recurrence – hence, so does Dutch Customs. In addition, there is much comprehension for the impact of unlawful actions of a colleague or ex-colleague on those that remain behind. Care is therefore considered a very important part of managing incidents. Yet, integrity management is much more than that. As an organisation, you can continue to grow by initiating activities independently from incidents and by linking them to moral workmanship. It is very important that everybody continues to be aware that most staff members are of good faith, and therefore deserve extensive trust. Nevertheless, continued upkeep is required to keep integrity and acting with integrity at the desired high level. Not because the integrity of staff members is declining, but rather because the world around us is changing continuously. You protect individual staff members by making them aware of the risks in their environment, for instance.”

Sliding scale
“It is important to focus on the majority and to ensure that they do not – unintentionally – offend,” says Van Oostrum. “Everyone has some idea of what acting with and without integrity is, but there is a grey area in between. Staff members must learn how to recognise certain signs and, in doing so, develop an antenna for matters that might not be right. Research shows that people often do not become criminals or corrupt overnight. Sometimes, thoughtlessness is involved and, sometimes, someone is unwillingly dragged into shady practices. There is almost always a sliding scale. Yet, when do things exactly go wrong? It is important that we discuss this with each other often and extensively.”

Core values
De Baedts: “Integrity is therefore a permanent part of the performance appraisal interview between a staff member and a superior and between a superior and the department. Yet, the subject also emphatically surfaces at other moments. For example, in our introduction programme, Customs on Board, in which new colleagues are introduced to the meaning of our core values: responsible, credible, and with due care. Moral workmanship and ethical leadership are also extensively discussed in management meetings. Hence, the organisation devotes much efforts to getting the theme on the agenda and to keeping it there. All staff members of our organisation are expected to want and dare to justify their actions, and to make undesirable situations a subject for discussion themselves.”

Reporting possibilities
“If you want to make this type of conversations possible, then you must create a trusted setting,” says De Baedts. “A staff member must be able to tell his or her story to his or her manager, the latter’s superior or another member of the management team in a safe, straightforward, and low-threshold manner. If that is not possible for any reason, then he or she must also be able to report something externally. For that reason, we have set up an Exceptional Incidents Hotline, where staff members can report signs. The leadership is still being involved for that matter, but there is a filter between the person filing the report and management. Furthermore, we have recently introduced a reporting app with which the user can submit his or her sign immediately if so desired – potentially anonymously, and accompanied by photographs or documents.”

Further reduce risks
Even though hotlines are indispensable within the integrity policy of Dutch Customs, prevention plays a role that is at least as important. Van Oostrum: “Every person is different. Our personality has a significant influence on our behaviour and on the choices we make, in our life and in our work. In the meantime, scientifically founded questionnaires that also identify personality traits linked to integrity –

as well as individual differences therein – are available. This type of tools will assist us in becoming even better at getting the right people in the right place, as part of the recruitment process for new staff members. We are currently investigating how exactly to achieve this. In addition, we are becoming increasingly better at exploiting the existing possibilities for screening new staff members. As such, we are therefore taking several measures. These are measures that not all our staff members appreciate, for that matter. He or she who has always done his or her work properly and with due care might experience these measures as a burden.”

“All in all, integrity is becoming increasingly a part of our regular operations,” concludes De Baedts. “This certainly benefits our good relationship with our public and private partners. For Dutch Customs, integrity and acting with integrity are the foundation for our actions – as a supervisory authority and as facilitators of the bona fide trade and industry.”

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