by Geert Vermeulen
Often ethics & compliance officers only end up in the news when things have gone wrong. Many people don’t realise that ethics & compliance officers also prevent numerous crimes and unethical practices, sometimes at the risk of being fired or by risking our health or even our lives. Usually you don’t hear about these cases. Therefore, I decided to share a couple WOW moments in compliance. The first article in this series of ‘WOW Moments in Compliance’ was about a case study regarding due diligence in the aviation industry while the second article was on due diligence in the energy industry. The third part, which was published last week was on change of strategy and now this fourth article is on ‘these wonderful Greeks’.
When I was about 10 years old my uncle Ad – until then the only person in my family with a university education – gave me a copy in the Dutch language of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I found these stories fascinating. In primary school I had been a bit of an outsider, because I was rather shy, even stuttered and because I managed to get good grades. I did my best to qualify for the gymnasium as secondary education and when I was accepted, I chose the Greek language as one the subjects for the final exams. I found it enriching to read the works of Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Sophokles in the Greek language. But also difficult; you don’t do it for relaxation.
These wonderful Greeks
Frankly, when I went to University to study Economics, I lost track of the Greek philosophers a bit, even though the word ‘economics’ has been derived from the Greek language. A few years later I became a compliance officer. After the financial crisis in 2008, I realised, however, that just complying with existing laws and regulations will not be sufficient to prevent the next crisis. Inspired by the Olivier Group, consisting of a number of leading Dutch compliance officers, and the cultural and behavioural risk department of the Dutch Central Bank, I began to delve into ethics, behaviour and culture. I started to actively promote the importance of culture and behaviour by talking and writing about it. Articles by Karssing & Dasselaar put me back on the trail of Aristotle.
Talking about ethics, culture and behaviour is one thing, but how do you change a culture? And how can you stimulate employees to behave ethically? A couple years ago I became one of the founding members of the Expert Group on Culture and Behaviour of the Netherlands Compliance Officers Association where we regularly talk about this topic. Over the years we developed a toolbox containing practical tools that ethics and compliance officers can use to influence the culture of their organisation. We won the National Compliance Award for this initiative, a little WOW moment in itself!
Recently we decided to open up the toolbox to anyone who is interested and the next step is to make it available in the English language. One of our favourite tools is organising dilemma sessions, a tool for which Socrates once laid the foundation. In the Spring of 2019, I was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the KPMG compliance conference in Athens about the importance of behaviour and culture for a compliance program and how we, as ethics & compliance officers, can put this into practice. This assignment enabled me to travel to Athens and inform the audience that, in my view, we should go back to the ideas of Socrates and Aristotle!
For a change, I also got applause instead of pitying glances for reciting by heart the beginning of the Odyssey in the ancient Greek language. And when I showed a picture of our 16-year-old daughter Helena, whom we named after Helena from the Iliad, I was strongly advised to watch out in case somebody called Paris would come along.
The conference was completely sold out with 220 attendees and I gave the best keynote that I had given in my career so far, at the very same grounds where the great Greek philosophers once used to wander. Not bad for a guy from a small town in The Netherlands who used to be shy and stutter. A real WOW moment for me!
The author, Geert Vermeulen, is a teacher, trainer, consultant and interim ethics & compliance officer. His goal is to help organisations conduct business in an ethical and compliant way. He also writes and speaks on ethics and compliance.